This post is a subtopic of URLs – The ultimate guide.
In this post, we’ll examine separate domains vs subdomains vs paths for:
- Separating distinctly different services, so they don’t distract the customer and clutter your website.
- Geotargeting (targeting different countries).
Internationalisation is covered in URLs – The ultimate guide.
Separating distinctly different services
If you have multiple services which are definitely unrelated, you might not want them on the same website.
For example, the Virgin group works in a lot of different industries:
- Virgin Media offers phone, internet and TV services.
- Virgin Games is a casino.
- Virgin Money offers banking services.
- And many more.
A customer who is interested in phone and internet will not necessarily also be interested in banking services. Therefore, it’s probably best to separate those services into different websites, so they don’t distract the customer.
Additionally, if you have as many services as the Virgin group, you might want to separate them anyway, otherwise things could get extremely cluttered.
Many other large companies also separate their services:
- Google separates its different services using subdomains, such as
https://firebase.google.com/(Google Firebase), etc.
- Facebook separates its business manager service with a subdomain
- Amazon also uses subdomains to separate AWS and its prime gaming service.
The BBC uses paths (subfolders) to separate its niches:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/cbbcfor CBBC (BBC for children)
https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayerfor BBC iPlayer
https://www.bbc.co.uk/foodfor BBC food
So, if you have products / services that you want to separate, which option should you choose?
There isn’t really an established answer.
Further, this decision could affect:
- Technical aspects of the website.
To make the best decision, you should probably consult several experts in those fields.
Otherwise, here are some of my personal thoughts on the matter.
Separate with paths (subfolders)
Using paths to separate services is tricky. It might work for the BBC, but it’s possible to argue that their niches are somewhat related, so perhaps they don’t need to be on entirely different websites. It’s more like the BBC is featuring different genres of TV programmes.
Further, the BBC doesn’t have an online store that features distinctly unrelated products that they would want to separate. As far as I can tell, their website doesn’t sell anything.
So in this case, it seems to work fine. Similarly, if your website has niches, but they are not so unrelated that they should be on separate websites, then you can just place them in different paths.
However, some problems may start to arise if a website like the BBC offered distinctly unrelated products or services for purchase.
Since they need to be distinctly separated, then obviously they can’t be in a single store on the website.
Instead, to separate them using paths, you would need multiple, independent stores, such as:
Personally, I would hesitate to use this solution.
I can imagine it causing confusion for many customers. A customer would visit one of the stores, then come back a few days later and not be able to find the same products anymore (if they went to a different store this time). Further, they might go to the basket page and not be able to find the products they added to the basket (because they switched to a different store in the meantime).
Additionally, some people are very unfamiliar with website use. It can take them several minutes to do something that might be instant for someone else. It may be very difficult for them to understand that the website has different, independent stores. Honestly, even experienced website users may be confused at first.
So overall, be careful of using paths. If you do, then take care to structure things in a way that doesn’t harm the user experience.
On a separate note, from an SEO perspective, using paths may be a very good option. Paths keep their domain authority. This means that any pages you create will probably start ranking much faster than if they were on separate domains or subdomains.
Separate with subdomains
Subdomains are a reasonable option:
- They clearly separate your different offerings.
- The connection to your main website and brand is obvious.
Many large companies go for this option. One example is Google. In fact, in the past, Google used to have separate domains for its different services. Over the last few years, it has switched to using subdomains instead.
However, there are some subtleties with SEO.
Subdomains may or may not inherit the root domain authority. This point is very heavily debated. Here are some articles claiming that subdomains don’t inherit the root domain authority. Article 1, article 2. Here’s an article claiming that subdomains are equivalent to subfolders.
So, subdomains may or may not be worse for SEO than paths (subfolders).
On the other hand, subdomains could be more beneficial for SEO in the long run. Since a subdomain is fairly different from your root domain, it may start to rank on its own and build its own domain authority. Then, if there are links between the subdomain and the root domain, it may also boost SEO for your root domain.
Needless to say, with all of these uncertainties, you should probably consult an SEO expert to find out the full details.
Separate with different domains
This is also a reasonable option.
From a marketing perspective, having separate domains with more marketable URLs may be beneficial.
Also, it may work better for SEO in the long run if the domain builds its own audience and ranking over time.
Additionally, this method may also work well if your products are super distinct and you don’t want them on the same website at all, even on different subdomains.
However, this method has some disadvantages:
- Different websites might lose some of the "brand value". It might be less obvious to customers that website 1 and website 2 are related or part of the same brand.
- Higher cost, as you’ll need to buy and renew more domains.
All of the options are reasonable in different circumstances.
If you don’t need to separate your products and services, then using paths is the obvious choice.
If you want separate domains, so that the domain names for your different services are more marketable, that’s fine too.
Subdomains provide something in-between. They provide better organisation than paths and showcase your entire brand more obviously than separate domains.
SEO has different pros and cons with each one. Paths are counted as the same website, which may be best for SEO. Subdomains may or may not be counted as the same website. Separate domains are not counted as the same website. Subdomains and separate domains may benefit SEO in the long-run, if they build up their own ranking.
Geotargeting (offering services to different countries)
This scenario is not very common for small websites. Getting your first few visitors and customers is hard enough. Having to provide different services to different countries makes things much harder.
Therefore, this may be more applicable to large websites and companies. If you have such a website, then it may be best to consult some experts to help you make the best decision on how to proceed.
Just like with separating your business services, your options for geotargeting are:
- Paths (subfolders)
- ccTLDs (separate domains with a different country ending, such as
As before, there are many things to consider before choosing an option, such as SEO, marketing and technical aspects.
Also, regardless of which option you choose, you should look at the Google page for managing multi-regional and multilingual sites. It has information on other things you may need to do, such as using hreflang annotations or the international targeting report
My personal experience on this is somewhat limited, but, if you’re still interested, here are some of my thoughts on it.
No separate website
If the location of your users doesn’t matter, then you don’t need a separate website.
This might be the case if you only sell digital products or if you ship globally.
However, you still need to consider the other points about SEO and marketing. For example, a marketing expert in your company may insist that a user is more likely to click on the
.fr ccTLD if they’re in France, compared to the
.com ccTLD. These additional points may be significant enough to make you consider the other options.
For reference, one example company that has a single website is Alibaba.
Separate ccTLDs (country code top-level domains)
ccTLD (country code top-level domain) refers to a country-specific domain name ending, such as
In many cases, the domain name will be the same (or translated) except for the ccTLD.
This is a reasonable option.
It makes it immediately obvious, to both users and search engines, that your website is targeting users in that particular country. Overall, this may mean that it’s the best option for marketing and user experience.
SEO has more subtleties:
- Domain authority isn’t inherited across different domains.
- Results from ccTLDs may or may not rank higher than results from gTLDs (generic top level domain, such as
.com). Here are two articles talking about this: Article 1, article 2.
Overall, this means that ccTLDs may not automatically be the best choice for SEO. In particular, article 1 recommends ccTLDs for large companies, who can individually build the ranking of each ccTLD, otherwise it recommends gTLDs. Article 2 suggests that a ccTLD is probably fine for countries where their language is only commonly spoken in that country. That way, for Google to return a website in the correct language, it has to return the correct ccTLD.
Another downside of ccTLDs is that they’re more expensive, as you have to buy and renew multiple different domains.
Subdomains are also a reasonable option.
It’s probably sufficiently obvious that the subdomain refers to the geolocation (the country that the website targets), rather than the language (the language that the website is translated into).
However, for some users, it may cause some minor confusion. For example, with the domain
fr.example.com, a French user in the US could mistakenly assume that the business operates in the US and the website has been translated into French, when in fact the website operates only in France and the
fr refers to the country of operation.
One potential issue with usability is if your website also uses subdomains for other things, such as to separate its products and services. Then, if you also use subdomains for geotargeting, you would add yet another level of subdomains, resulting in many multi-level subdomains. For example:
This is less user friendly, as the URL has multiple levels and is longer.
It may also mean that you have to purchase and manage different SSL certificates rather than a standard wildcard one (which normally only secures subdomains one level deep).
Overall, from an organisational perspective, subdomains can be a good option.
From an SEO perspective, subdomains may inherit some of the root domain authority, which is good. They can also be set for geotargeting in Google’s international targeting report. Overall, with my limited SEO knowledge, this makes it seem like a good option to me.
In this case, I would trust what the experts say.
Paths are the final option. For example
One potential disadvantage with paths is that users may confuse the country code for the language code. For example, in
example.com/fr is "fr" the targeted country or the language of the page?
Another potential disadvantage is organisation and usage. Every geotargeted location would have different, independent stores (otherwise you wouldn’t need to add geotargeting to your website). In that case, a customer may be browsing products in one store, switch to a different geotargeted location (either deliberately or by accident) and then continue to browse and be unable to find the products that they were just looking at. This may happen especially if a user mistakes the country for the language. In this case, they may switch geotargeted location while trying to switch language.
However, something like this is probably rare. Also, as long as you properly label these things for your users, then it should be fine.
From an SEO perspective, paths are very good. They keep all of the domain authority.
Similar to separating business services, all of the options are reasonable in different circumstances.
ccTLDs are good for marketing and potentially good for SEO if handled well. However, they are expensive and potentially worse for SEO if not handled well.
Subdomains can provide good organisation, as long as you don’t end up with multi-level subdomains. However, SEO experts recommend against using them.
Paths are also a good option. Website organisation is the weakest. However, they retain their domain authority, probably making them the best option for SEO.
Internationalisation (offering different languages on your websites) is covered in detail in the post URLs – The ultimate guide. Please look there for more information.
That’s all. I hope you found this article useful. If you have any feedback, or even counter-arguments, please let me know in the comments.
See you on the next post.