Do custom domains affect SEO?

Discover the impact of custom domains on SEO, focusing on the debate between using subdomains versus subdirectories.
Jan 03, 2024
Do custom domains affect SEO?

In the dynamic world of Search Engine Optimization, the influence of domain-related factors is often overlooked. However, these factors can significantly shape your website's visibility and ranking on search engines. Let’s uncover the crucial elements of your domain that can either propel you to SEO success or hold you back.

Key domain-related factors that influence your website's SEO power

  1. The Significance of Domain Age: Think of your domain age as a vintage wine in the digital world. The older, the more esteemed it might be in the eyes of search engines. Yet, the true essence lies in the content's quality and relevance, outshining mere age.

  2. The Story Behind Your Domain: Your domain's backstory is like its digital reputation. Previous penalties or low-quality content could negatively impact its current standing in the SEO realm. A clean and reputable history is essential for a strong SEO position.

  3. The Power of the Right Domain Extension: Domain extensions, particularly .com, .org, and .net, are akin to prime real estate in the digital neighborhood, often seen as more trustworthy. However, if your audience is more localized, country-specific TLDs could be your ticket to better local rankings, though they might narrow your global reach.

  4. Keywords in Your Domain Name: The art of embedding keywords in your domain name is a balancing act. Done right, it can enhance relevancy and attract the right audience. However, overdoing it can backfire, appearing as spammy and untrustworthy.

  5. Length Matters in Domain Names: In the world of domains, shorter often equals better. Easy to recall and less prone to typing errors, concise domain names are generally more user-friendly and credible. Beware of overly long domain names, as they can raise red flags about your site’s legitimacy.

  6. The SEO Impact of Subdomains and Subfolders: The structural choice between subdomains and subfolders can impact your SEO strategy. Content in subfolders is typically seen as part of the main site, potentially strengthening the domain's authority. In contrast, subdomains might be treated as separate, each carving its own SEO path.

  7. HTTPS: The Seal of Security and Trust: An SSL certificate, signifying a secure HTTPS domain, is a non-negotiable SEO factor today. It's a symbol of data security and trust, highly regarded by search engines.

  8. Domain Renewal Duration: The length of your domain's renewal can subtly signal stability and trustworthiness. While not a major SEO factor, it can contribute to the overall perception of your domain's reliability.

Let's explore some key domain-related factors that are essential for effective SEO:

Domain names

Your domain name serves as your introduction in the digital landscape. The right combination of length, keywords, and extensions can effectively grab both user attention and search engine interest. Steer clear of overly generic or keyword-stuffed domain names, as they can be more off-putting than engaging.

Site structure

The structure of your site plays a crucial role in how easily both visitors and search engines can navigate and find content. Creating a well-organized structure, much like mapping out a mind map, is vital. Each section or page linked in this structure acts as an internal link, serving several important purposes:

  • Facilitating search engines in discovering new pages (as they can only index what they can find).

  • Distributing PageRank throughout your website. PageRank remains a foundational element of Google's search algorithm, assessing a page's quality based on the quantity and quality of links pointing to it.

  • Helping search engines decipher the content of a page through the anchor text of links.

A thoughtfully designed site structure benefits domain-related SEO in multiple ways:

  • Navigation and User Experience: An intuitive site structure reduces bounce rates and increases the time users spend on your site, both positive indicators for search engines.

  • URL Structure: URLs that mirror your site’s layout and include relevant keywords aid search engines in understanding each page’s content.

  • Site Hierarchy and Accessibility: A site with a shallow hierarchy (fewer levels deep) makes important pages more accessible, directly benefiting their SEO ranking.

  • Internal Linking: Efficient internal linking enhances page authority distribution across your site and improves search engine crawling efficiency.

  • Crawl Efficiency: A well-organized site structure enables search engine bots to crawl your site more effectively, increasing the likelihood of comprehensive page indexing.

  • Sitemap: A clear sitemap aligned with your site’s structure assists search engines in indexing your content.

  • Duplicate Content Management: A good site structure helps in avoiding duplicate content issues, which can be detrimental to SEO if not managed properly.

  • Breadcrumb Navigation: This type of navigation, mirroring your site’s structure, aids both users and search engines in understanding the relationship and hierarchy of pages on your site.

While site structure itself isn't a direct domain-related factor like domain age or the name, it significantly influences your overall SEO strategy by enhancing the usability and readability of your site for both users and search engines. A well-structured website can indirectly strengthen the domain's authority and improve its ranking in search engine results pages (SERPs).

Do custom domains affect SEO?

At the heart of this discussion are two key elements of website architecture: subdomains (like and subdirectories (like Each serves a different purpose in organizing your site's content, but do they affect your SEO differently?

Google's Perspective: It's All About User Experience

Google experts, including Matt Cutts and John Mueller, have consistently maintained that both subdomains and subdirectories can be effective for SEO. The choice depends on what works best for your website's structure and management. In essence, Google emphasizes that the ease of site configuration and user experience should guide this decision.

Matt Cutts said in 2012:

They’re roughly equivalent. I would basically go with whichever one is easier for you in terms of configuration, your CMSs, all that sort of stuff… Both are on the same domain overall and so it’s really a question of which one is easier for you. Whichever one makes you happier I’d go ahead and do it that way.

Matt Cutts, Former Head of Webspam Google

John Mueller said in 2017:

Google websearch is fine with using either subdomains or subdirectories. Making changes to a site’s URL structure tends to take a bit of time to settle down in search so I recommend picking a setup that you can keep for longer.

John Mueller, Search Advocate Google

The long-standing belief that subdirectories automatically outrank subdomains is a misconception. Modern SEO practices show that Google evaluates each based on content quality and user experience, rather than their structural differences. Subdomains can be just as effective as subdirectories if they're well-integrated and relevant to the main site.

Learning from GitHub's Experience

Consider GitHub's migration journey: from a subdirectory to a subdomain, and then to a completely different domain. This case study highlights that the URL structure, whether a subdomain or subdirectory, doesn't inherently dictate SEO success. Instead, it's the overall site experience and content relevance that play a pivotal role.

Why You Might See Differences in Traffic

Changes in website traffic following structural modifications often stem from various factors:

  • Temporary Signal Changes: Google might temporarily adjust rankings as it reassesses the site's structure.

  • Measurement Discrepancies: Ensure your analytics are set up correctly to accurately measure the impact of these changes.

  • Content and Platform Adjustments: Changes in content, site design, or platform can all influence SEO, irrespective of whether you're using a subdomain or subdirectory.

The Bottom Line: Focus on What Matters

In the end, the subdomain vs. subdirectory debate should not overshadow the core principles of SEO: creating quality content, ensuring a great user experience, and maintaining a well-structured website. Whether you choose a subdomain or a subdirectory, what truly matters is how you integrate and optimize these sections for your users and search engines.

Remember, in the SEO world, strategy and execution outweigh structural choices. Make decisions that align with your website's goals and audience needs, and you'll be on the right track to SEO success.

Further Reading and References:
For more insights into domain-related SEO, check out Shopify's blog on the topic and Ahrefs' detailed analysis of subdomains vs. subdirectories.

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