By Michael P. Ehline, Esq. – As a personal injury lawyer, I have noticed some major changes in Google when they render results for personal injury firms. In the past, a lawyer website homepage would often render for many many terms. Not so much post Penguin and Panda. Now, Google is drilling down deep into the site for the most relevant page to that query.
Panda Trending Shows Targeted Domains and Child Pages Being Given Ranking Preference
One trend I have seen, is that legal websites that are highly targeted to a particular query, such as micro sites, are doing very well for a particular area of law, or “term” in the organic SERPS. But why not just create a series of microsites on your own branded domain? Post Panda, Google started presenting child pages that were deep linked, to the exclusion of home page results that had vast amounts of anchor text for those child page terms, more and more. But why not have a subdomain with a relevant url string like www.motorcycleaccident.ehlinelaw.com, if for example, you wanted to have a whole section on your site dealing with motorcycle accident law? In this way, you could have a mini website within a larger website with its own architecture and resources. It would be highly targeted, and easier for Panda to navigate (which means easier for users) Here is a primer for you about some of the potential benefits and drawbacks:
Subfolders Are a Sea of Data Buried Amongst The Site’s Darkness
In the past the best SEO practices were using subfolders as the idyllic choice for almost all websites, until the Google Panda update. This update had webmasters all over the internet tossed into a sinkhole of churning darkness. The ironic thing about the websites hit hard by this update, were not even publishing low-quality content for the most part. People using SEO began questioning the traditional way things were done, when Matt Cutts came out after the Panda update and told HubPages, who had suffered about a 50 percent drop in traffic to “try subdomains.” The question now is should webmasters use a subfolder or subdomain in website planning?
Panda was looking at sites and saying, “hey there are a bunch of pages about ‘Dog bite attorney’ that are all communicating, basically the same message. Maybe the webmaster is trying to game us?”
Other things Panda was/is looking at are:
“Hey, many of these similar pages are weak, or keyword stuffed, and make poor use of English semantics, or ‘legaleaze’.
One Bad Page Drags the Whole Site Down
In the second detail above, that one or several thin, or stuffed pages, could actually be damaging your whole legal website. Matt Cutts and others have intimated that one bad page can hurt the rankings of the entire site. As such, I started searching for an easier way of finding bad content and separating content out from subfolders, so I could improve overall navigation and content as a whole.
The Value of Dedicated Subdomains for GEO Location and Practice Area
After much research, it became obvious to me that I should have dedicated subdomains for each city and practice area. As I am going through my site, taking a look on the internet for relevant information on this topic is difficult, since there are not a lot of people that have approached writing on this situation of Panda’s problem with subfolders. My position is that just like it is hard for you to find all your motorcycle accident pages in subfolders, is just as hard for Panda. Plus, as you find all these buried pages, or posts in the WordPress dashboard, you will probably start seeing redundancies and keyword stuffing, etc.
What you would rather have, is a dedicated website within your main site. In this way, you can remove and edit your old pages and have a permanent part of your site dedicated to just discussing “motorcycle accidents”. Get it? And you will also have a separate city page, like losangeles.ehlinelaw.com for example. Understand this so far? In any event, Matt Cutts, as will be discussed, had intimated that a subdomain could also potentially isolate thin, or poorer content on a main, or larger site, like www.ehlinelaw.com for example. So for many reasons, I think subdomains are the way to go.
So here is what some other people besides lawyers have been saying. The one person that seems to be enlightened about this is Alan Bleiweiss from Click2Rank involving the potential and advantage of using subdomains.
Ok So What is a Subfolder as Opposed to a Subdomain?
The first question newer websmasters might ask is what is a subfolder and subdomain and what is the difference between them? There is no short or easy answer for this question of subfolders and subdomains, or which one is used will depend on the websites needs and niches, which is an individual thing. The easiest explanation of subfolders and subdomains and how they are different:
Subfolders: On the server, the subfolder is a folder contained under the parent folder. This is usually a step in the website hierarchy that will usually begin with the homepage being the main parent, and extra pages added as subfolders. The URL of the subfolder will usually be in a format of http://www.yourdomain.com/subfolder.
Generally the use of subfolders in websites was used in their site structure, till the update subdomains were uncommon to use as an SEO strategy. The well known open-source management systems such as Joomla and WordPress use this type of structure as their default. The problem again, is that it is often hard to locate each page or post on your site that is relevant to your target. An example would be your main “motorcycle accident attorney” page, and then the related page on “motorcycle safety”. These are all buried within the dashboard and requires you to do a “search” for the pages. In fact, as you find the pages, or posts, you will probably find older documents that are substantially similar to eachother, and that need some LSI love.
Subdomains: The subdomain is a part of the large domain, referred to as a root domain. The way that Google or other search engines look at the subdomain is that it behaves like its own website, unlike the subfolder. There are some SEO experts that say authority is transferred from the root domain with a subfolder. The URL structure of subdoamin’s may look like http://yoursubdomain.maindomain.com or http://www.yoursubdomian.maindomain.com.
There is an SEO argument opposing the use of subdomains, with the exception of explicit and relevant situations. The inexperienced webmaster is advised against using subdomains, since it is like managing a an entirely new website.
The question is, has this changed minds with Panda? For me it sure has. Looking at HubPages recovery after Panda and their process of recovery, which is an online publishing platform. This platform permits HubPages users to monetize their content effortlessly by providing space similar to WordPress or Blogger, with the additional monitizable infrastructure. They used a subfolder named hubpages.com until recently for every one of their users.
Hubpages saw a rapid decrease in traffic after the Panda update hit, which was reportedly over 50 percent of their page views that was lost, leaving them wonder how they would recover. This is when they made a plea to head of Google’s spam department Matt Cutts, who is the general liaison to the SEO community, about how they could start ranking on Google again.
One of the things that Cutts suggested was to use subdomains. After Cutts told HubPages to try subdomains, they began moving all of the user names belonging to the site from the subfolder hubpages.com/user/ to a subdomain named user.hubpages.com. This is similar to the structure on both Blogger and WordPress websites. This is seen in a post on HubPages’ blog, where they say this change should permit each of their authors to be separately ranked by Google and the change will prevent the integrity of the site to be undamaged.
How HubPages Worked Out Their Problems
HubPages changing their strategy at first look, when they changed all of their users to their own subdomain helped in resolving the issues caused by the Panda update, since Google would judge each of the users Hub as its own site, relieving the main site from damaging the integrity of the entire website. This is also alerting Google that each page now is its own entity. This way when Panda determines a site should be punished, it will only affect the content on that specific subdomain.
This brings up the question should everyone use subdomains instead of subfolders? Prior to converting an entire website from subfolders to subdomains, first it is important to check out the post-Panda perspective. There may be some answers in what Alan Bleiweiss has to say:
Subdomains versus subfolders, is not always an issue of one or the other, because each of these have benefits and disadvantages when used Bleiweiss said. Staying within the context, subdomains are not equal to subfolders, is the short answer, but it is not that simple. Both have their own values, which are based on the sites focus, overall purpose and optimization resources. Andre van Wyk and I have bantered back and forth on this, and his point was that subdomains may not pass or receive as much value sitewide, as a subfolder. I am not convinced however, and am seeing a nice bounce in SERPS. But then again, I am also rewriting all of the thousands of pages on my site and 301 redirecting to to the new subdomains. A very slow process that makes PPC look very viable when one is trying to run a law firm.
Subfolders Ok for Smaller Sites
A smaller legal website with limited resources for continuing SEO will generally be better off staying with subfolders. It will take less effort to continually provide new content and in driving links across the generalized self-contained domain. The reason for this is each quality page in each subfolder will add to the good of the site. Though, this is not true, if you attempt to go to wide with intent or high level related topics.
An example of spreading topical intent too thin, is when you have a website about widgets and much of the content is based on information. Then having a large selection of widget products for sale, it will change from informational into sales. When this occurs it is smarter to split the sales content into a separate subdomain.
This way it would be possible to drive inbound links and updates, along with a social hum to both, which will provide more value faster from each. This would be shop.domain.com and news.domain.com, rather than having domain.com/shop and domain.com/news. Without having the resources to manage using subdomains, then it is better to get results using subfolders, since each subdomain is basically its own site from scratch.
Properly optimizing subdomains, if there is ongoing efforts they can receive more ranking value. You may even get some benefits of having an EMD in the url string. But then again, subfolders also can be uniquely named. This is because they have a largely tight tropical focus, instead of a site that is spread over many topics. A self-contained domain will obtain its highest tropical focus value boosted, when there is additional highly related content within the site, particularly when it is in the areas or sections of the website that get a boost themselves.
But Do You Have the Time or Money to Revamp Your Legal Website?
What it all comes down to is resources; if you have enough resources then you can get subdomains ranked higher, faster and for longer. It has to make sense for other reasons to justify having a full subdomain, due to the amount of content or where one domain will go too wide eventually.
Going to wide with subfolders can happen over time and is when a site has more than several top level categories. There should not be 20, 30 or more top level categories, since navigation and usability will become damaged, as well as SEO.
Bleiweiss said subfolders are best to use in most cases. Sites that have a narrow tropical focus, like news, movie reviews or SEO blog, subfolders will allow transferring a lot of authority to the root domain will have these pages to help rank fast. It will also make it easier to navigate.
When the site covers numerous topics, such as product reviews or it has a large amount of user generated content, like Blogger, HubPages or WordPress, then using subdomains to separate the content will provide better results, as long as there is the SEO resources. Having a tighter topical focus with subfolders will show Google the site is relevant and focused, resulting in it ranking higher for associated keywords. Separating user generated content to its own subdomain for larger sites will result in Panda penalizing low quality content, but leaving quality content users unaffected.
Anyone impressed with HubPages Panda recovery should ask themselves if changing their site structure will result in better ranking or whether you can be content with subfolders. My site has made extreme recovery, and it is just getting better and better. I am finding that other lawyers are actually linking back to my site, and using some of my inner, child pages as resources. This is another benefit of having a site that actually adds value, and that was not just written for the search engines. Panda seems to be emulating it thinks is a good user experience. Panda is very smart. So consider subdomains if you’re a lawyer and make sure you don’t just move pages there. Make sure you are using breadcrumbs, sidebar widgets, footnotes, citations to educational resources and that your content makes use of proper LSI techniques. This is the winning formula for any lawyer who wants to hit a home run!
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