Multiple domains VS directories

By Stephen Saugestad
August 21, 2014
DesignSEOStrategy

We often get asked by clients who own a portfolio of properties under the umbrella of their corporate brand – is it better to use separate URLs with standalone websites, or a single website with directories? Unfortunately there is not a simple answer to this question. There’s a number of things you need to consider before choosing what’s right for your business.

Brand strategy

This has less to do with technology and more to do with the positioning of your brand in the physical world. Some brands position their corporate identity in the forefront, while others live passively in the background. For example a Marriott Hotel provides largely the same experience in all their hotels, at a low price, and that’s what people expect. In this case the Marriott brand lives prominently in the front, so the single domain with multiple directories representing different locales works well here.

Though not a direct comparison, lets look at Relaix & Chateau hotels. Each is highly unique, and provides a radically different experience; their differentiation is central to the brand promise. In this instance the R&C brand, while highly coveted, is secondary to the individual hotel brand. Here a strategy that leverages multiple domains makes more sense.

Sometimes the age of a brand is a factor in making this determination. Ace Hotel is a very strong brand that’s built its reputation over a number of years. There is enough brand equity here that people seek them out when they travel. So it makes a lot of sense for the Ace websites to centralize its domain strategy. But if you are starting a new business with plans for multiple sub brands or locations under the same umbrella, it may make sense to start with a multi-domain strategy and work up to a single domain once you’ve built up some brand equity.

Usability

Some websites are more usable than others, but learning a new interface always takes time. So there is some advantage to having your subbrands living under the umbrella of the corporate brand in directories, because it ‘s easier to learn how to navigate a single website over multiple ones. Once users visit and use the website, they become familiar, and return visits become incrementally easier to use. There is also some advantage to having information living in a single container as opposed to multiple.

So if ease of use and reducing friction is an important goal, a single URL may be the way to go. But surely there are instances where you want to provide a unique experience to users – for example a business that emphasizes its connection to the local community and culture rather than to the tenets of an overarching brand. This scenario would lend itself to a multiple domain strategy.

CMS

Going with a directory structure for the website allows you to centralize the content management system and database. While you can host multiple websites and databases on the same server, getting them to talk to each other and share data is entirely another matter. Lets use WordPress Multisite as an example. Using this combination, you are able to use a single installation of the CMS and share the same plugins between a network of websites.

There are also advantages realized on the business side. Typically you will have a single login and access multiple sites from that login. In terms of troubleshooting and maintenance, working on a single install is simpler. Same goes for software updates. Therefore using a single CMS reduces administrative burden and increases productivity.

Authority, reputation & link building

Search engines assign a measure of authority to each domain based on a complex algorithm. The simplest example of this is Google’s Page Rank. So if you have a top level domain that’s been around for a while, and has been the beneficiary of SEO, there is an advantage to using subdirectories because the top level domain will pass its authority to the directory. So this is less of a concern if you are starting a new business.

Depending on who you ask, the authority or reputation score of a domain can also pass authority to a limited number of subdomains. So if you have a strong TLD and a small number of subdomains, this may be a good option. But there is no solid consensus on whether subdomains rank higher than subdirectories, so keep this in mind.

Your link building campaign is not really affected drastically in either way. In terms of internal link value, the single domain with directories is usually better because you can make better use of the value of internal links. Inbound links coming from the outside provide authority equally to a TLD, subdomain, or directory. So if you have a multi-domain strategy, you need to make sure you have enough quality inbound links to provide the overarching SEO strategy with enough juice to rank competitively for the keywords you are targeting. But if your business relies heavily on SEO for sales and you have a small marketing budget, it may make more sense to focus your dollars on a single website, at least to start.

Geo-targeting

If you’re dealing with a portfolio that spans multiple countries, using separate domains allows you to do geo-targeting. Search engines in different countries server up different results based on language, IP, and the country of the domain. So if your marketing strategy is individual to businesses in different countries, you’re going to be better off using separate URLs.

Cost

It’s usually cheaper to support and SEO and SEM strategy that encompases a single domain with multiple directory rather than separate URLs. A single website is also cheaper to design, set up, maintain, update and develop content for. But this domain strategy is only practical for small websites. If you have a lot of content, separating them across separate domains tends to be more practical from a usability and business perspective.

Tracking

This is a tough questions to answer, and there are pros and cons to having a single URL or multiple in the context of tracking. The size of the website and goals of your digital marketing strategy would be considerations in making this determination.

In terms of set up, tracking on a single domain and website is usually more simple than across multiple domains. So there is a technical hurdle and associated cost with tracking multiple domains. If you are comparing the ease by which you can digest user data, it’s usually easier to have separate domains that can be analyzed individually. But if you want to look at goals and conversions holistically as part of an integrated campaign that spans multiple sub brands, it would be better for this data to live in a single container that can be analysed centrally.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there are a lot of nuances about each situation that changes the equation in determining whether a single or multiple domain strategy is suitable. Hopefully this will give you a good start.

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