Subdomain SEO Case Study: Getting the most SEO out of a suboptimal situation
By Christian Bullock
Our digital marketing agency has always preached:
Subdomains are not ideal for a website's site architecture.
An organized site architecture (or information architecture) is crucially important for effective on-site SEO. With an optimized architecture, the benefits are:
- Optimized flow of PageRank through web page
- Natural topical associations between pages
- Better crawling experience for search engine spiders
- Better usability experience for site visitors
One of our clients - VMware - had a problem: they had set up a new subdomain and intended to use it as its main “home” for its hybrid cloud solution vCloud Air.
Uh-oh - subdomain.
The bigger problem? The newly established subdomain destination (known as the vCloud Air microsite or simply the microsite moving forward) was competing against a domain (vmware.com) with over 135k inbound links and a domain authority score of 93.
For outside comparisons, buzzfeed.com has the same reported domain authority score as the main VMware.com domain. Use Mint.com? VMware.com also trumps that website in regards to domain authority..
This all meant that when someone searched for vCloud Air, the service page on the main domain would show up due to the strength of all of the metrics we just covered off on.
To boil it down in a tweet: our goal was to get the microsite to be THE authoritative resource for anything vCloud Air and to show microsite listings on the SERP.
Think of it as a David (microsite) vs. Goliath (main vmware.com domain) situation… if they were related.
How did we tackle this subdomain SEO issue? Read on for tactics and results.
Our strategy to make the most of this subdomain situation and to start associating the microsite as the authoritative resource included two off-site tactics and one on-site:
Off-Site: Knowledge Graph Optimization
We wanted search engines - specifically Google - to know straight from their semantic-search driven sources that the subdomain was the authoritative page for the vCloud Air product. So we went to these sources, two of many which includeWikipedia and Freebase, and ensured that the “official” product page for vCloud Air was the subdomain and not the main domain.
With semantic search showing up more and more in the form of enriched search engine results (answer cards, universal results such as images and video, carousels and expanded information for weather, transportation and even the Spice Girls), we wanted to ensure that search engines knew the authoritative URL for vCloud Air.
Off-Site: Influencer Program
We find tremendous value in running uniquely set up influencer programs for our clients.
Not only do we see some of the highest referrer conversion rates from influencer-produced content clicks but all of links help in the form of inbound links going back to your site.
With the influencer program we crafted with vCloud Air, we had our brand ambassadors talking about the service, reviewing it, and linking back to the subdomain. This resulted in topical links built, which built up the site’s authority from an off-page aspect.
On-Site: Title Tag Optimization
We looked to make a tweak to the single-most important ranking element on a web page - title tags - to help try to establish the subdomain as the authoritative vCloud Air website.
With title tags, search engines place weight more on words that appear at the front of the tag versus the end.
With this in mind, we tweaked title tags a bit to establish on-page authority.
Before our optimization recs, branded labeling was:
VMware vCloud Air
We recommended a change to:
vCloud Air by VMware
A small tweak, sure, but you’re getting that brand that we’re looking to rank for a bit closer to the beginning of the tag.
Search for “vCloud Air” yourself: we have a #1 and a #2 result, both with organic site links:
And even “VMware vCloud Air” ranking #1 with in-depth sitelinks:
Before these #1 rankings, search engines would serve a vmware.com page one day and a vcloud.vmware.com page before. Now? We get 100% impression share.
And the impact on organic traffic? Since we began grabbing more and more impression share for branded terms, look at this 12 month trend line:
That’s an organic search traffic increase of 3.4X in a span of 12 months.
What should you do if approached with a subdomain situation like ours?
First, if you can convince your client (or if you’re an in-house SEO, your execs) to move the subdomain to a subfolder and consolidate, then do that.
But if you’re stuck with it, like we were, know that you need to tackle the problem of authority head on by establishing the subdomain as the most authoritative URL for what you’re trying to rank for.
Do this by establishing off-page and on-page authority.
Then reap the traffic rewards :)