There are hundreds of factors that go into determining which site should rank for a specific query. While Andrew Lipattsev famously shared the top three with the world in 2015 (Links, Content and RankBrain), how important are the other couple of hundred factors?
In the past I would have argued that while the other factors played a significant role, tediously optimizing around them would yield little return. A few months ago I decided to test my assumptions.
When I began using HubSpot as my marketing automation software, I did what many HubSpot users do and moved my blog over to a subdomain. Since I was rebranding and relaunching my agency, I figured I could just make sure I created great content, generate links and make sure my posts were optimized.
And that’s exactly what I did. Over the next few years I published new content regularly, built links and took the time to ensure my posts were optimized. As you would expect, my site traffic grew and so did my organic visibility. But I am not one to just settle.
I began to notice that my organic growth, while still growing, was growing at a slower pace. So I began to dive a little deeper into the data to see if I could see why. Our backlink profile was clean and growing, so no issues there. We were consistently creating great, contextually relevant content, so again no issues there. So why did we hit this wall?
I began to research more to see if there was something I was missing. I remembered a session at PubCon South FL, where Bill Hunt shared on the power of SEO fundamentals. In his presentation he stressed that if SEO’s would simply focus on the basics of fundamental SEO, they would see a huge return.
This lead me to another one of my go to resources, “The Art of SEO” by Eric Enge, Stephan Spencer, and Jessica C. Stricchiola.
This book is full of knowledge and insight on everything search. In the section about “creating an SEO friendly website,” they break down all of the essential aspects of having an SEO friendly site. One section, on subdomain vs. Subdirectory caught my attention.
“If a sub-folder will work, it is the best choice 99.9% of the time. Keeping content on a single Root Domain gives the maximum SEO benefits, as engines will maintain all of the positive metrics the site earns around links, authority, and trust, and will apply these to every page on the site.” (Page 251: The Art of SEO)
After reading this section I knew what I wanted to test. It was time to move my blog, the main content drive of my site, off its domain and into a subdirectory. Since I had a ton of content attached to my subdomain, this was going to be a much larger job that changing a few settings on my site.
Before I made the move, I needed first to know the URLs of every blog I had on my current sub-domain. So I used my trusty old friend Screaming Frog SEO Spider to crawl my site and give me all of the URLs I needed. In total there were 397 pieces of content that needed to be mapped and redirected once I changed my URL structure.
Creating the Map
To ensure that we didn’t create a ton of new 404 errors, we then used this excel spreadsheet to map out the old URLs and the new URLs. While this was a very tedious process, it was extremely important to ensure that our site was working correctly and that we didn’t lose rank for any of the terms for which our blog articles were currently ranking.
Once we finished with the mapping, it was time to create the sub-directory on our site and flip the switch. Since our blog posts were live and we wanted to minimize downtown as much as possible, we waited to upload the 301 redirects until after the domain switch was made. This gave us about 10 minutes between the switch and propagation of the new URL to ensure that everything was redirected. The time we spent mapping the URLs out ahead of time allowed us to do this very quickly.
Making the Switch
Every CMS and register is different, so this next section won't apply 100% to all cases, but it will give insight into how it works. Our website is hosted on HubSpot, but we manage our domains using WHM CPanel. Since HubSpot connects to domains using CNAME records, and we no longer were going to use our subdomain, we just needed to make sure that our main URL was connected.
The next step was to change the default domain for our blog inside of HubSpot. To make this change, we went to Content > Content Settings > Domain Manager. We removed the “blog” sub-main as the default blog URL and made our main URL the default for blog content.
Next we changed the blog URL in the blog content settings. To access this section in HubSpot go to Content > Content Settings > Blog. Make sure that your main URL is now in the drop down box and add you desired subdirectory location.
Once you’re finished, hit save!
At this point, my blog was now on my root domain and in a subdirectory. But my work was not finished yet. While all of my content was moved, I also just created nearly 400 new 404 errors. Since my subdomain and all of its content were indexed, as far as Google was concerned, I just shut my blog down. In order to ensure that I retained rank, I needed to alert Google that I had moved my content permanently to a new location.
Creating the master redirect list ahead of time allowed me to make sure that I accounted for all the domains. HubSpot has a simple redirection tool. To access this tool go to Content > COS URL Mapping.
The bulk redirect option is very easy to use. Since I had my URLs in an excel file, I just exported them to CSV and was able to copy and paste the data into the URL mapping tool.
I checked the box, and clicked “Add URL mappings." I then checked the old domains to make sure that they were redirecting properly.
Since I just added nearly 400 new pages to my site, I wanted to make sure that Google recrawled my site as soon as possible. Search Console is one of the best tools for webmasters and SEOs to not only view site statistics but also connect to Google.
Using the sitemap link under “crawl” I added my sitemap to be crawled again. While this doesn’t force Google to recrawl your, it can help to get your site crawled sooner. After any major URL, content or site structure update, I recommend that you resubmit your site to Google.
After I made the switch, now it was time to sit back and collect the data. While I was hoping that this would result in more visibility, I was also praying that I covered all my bases to ensure that I didn’t destroy all of the hard work I had put into driving traffic over the last few years.
I wanted to be sure that I gave the search engines some time before I made any conclusions. While I expected it to take longer, I started to see a big change just a week after the switch was made. The graph below will show that on November 19, 2017, I had 35 indexed pages on my root domain. By December 3, 2017, 689.
Great news! This means Google was picking up my blogs and attaching them to my root domain. But how was this impacting site visibility?
Two weeks prior to moving to a subdirectory, From November 9 to the 23rd, my site had 79 total click, 41,547 total impressions and an avg. CTR of 0.19%.
Two weeks right after the switch this is what we saw: 562 total click, 93,527 total impressions and an avg. CTR of 0.6%.
To be honest, this blew my mind. I knew moving traffic from a subdomain by default would increase these numbers because all of the blog content was not on the root domain. But the pages that had the largest increase in traffic were my home page and SEO services page.
While our blogs are a clear traffic driver, moving them to a subdirectory clearly added value to our site as a whole.
Since making the move, we have seen a moderate increase in organic traffic (4.22%) and continue to see other indicators that Google approves of our move. While these numbers aren't as astronomical as the search console date, they clearly show that we are headed in the right direction.
What About Rank?
One area I was concerned with during this whole process was losing rank for a number of keywords we worked so hard to gain authority around. Moving to a subdirectory greatly increased the visibility of our content. We are now ranking for the first position for a number of our focused terms and have better positioned our site to drive more qualified traffic.
As stated in the quote from “The Art of SEO”, if you can have your blog in a subdirectory, by all means do it. The benefits to your domain as a whole will be huge. Now, just because you make the switch or start with your blog connected to the root, doesn't mean you’ll get results. You still need to create great content, have sound on-page optimization and build links. By having your content connected to your root domain, all the hard work associated with your blog will increase the visibility of your site as a whole.