Subdomains vs. Subdirectories

Well, here’s the deal. There are theories all over the place these days about whether you should organize Web sites using sub-domains (e.g. “http://something.umw.edu”) or sub-directories (e.g. “http://umw.edu/something”). WordPress Multi-User forces you to make a choice of one or the other UPON INSTALLATION. No pressure…

I’m setting up a development environment within the umw.edu domain on a University-owned server. As a result, in order to get the sub-domain functionality going, the network and server administration folks need to get involved, which may constitute more overhead for them in the long run. It’s another line of code to the DNS, but, there are always network implications for things like this. I don’t like doing things that involve having to bring in a multitude of folks to support it, and to respond to what can appear to be idiosncratic requests. So, I feel it’s my duty to research whether or not the bang for the buck of a subdomain structure is worth it.

SEO Consideration

With the acknowledgement of the unfortunate fact that SEO field is more art than science, a moving target, and at any point in time, full of spurious claims, but I digress. There are indeed some ways to help search engines get to your stuff quicker 🙂 Using a subdomain, supposedly, has search engines treat that section as a separate site, with equal importance, or of comparable organizational weight, as the parent site.

Using this rationale, it is easy to see why UMWBlogs uses sub-domains. Blogs by individuals within the domain are of equal weight, and each constitute, essentially, their own web environment, deserving to be crawled as a “root” site unto its own. Interlinking, and crawls between blogs that lead to the “network effect” of the social web, would arise from the individual choices made by the bloggers. If your blog is relevant, it gets linked to, and its ranking goes up because the quality of the content is compelling. So, rather than a top-down measure of your blog’s importance, you have a more organic measure of your blogs relevance. In essence, the information architecture is 3-dimensional and always changing.

With a large-scale university site, this type of status may not apply to each area of content. For instance, I would not consider the Web site for, say, the EagleOne card office (e.g. eagleone.umw.edu) to be on the same level of importance as the College of Education (e.g., education.umw.edu). That is because, within an organization, although there are ongoing shifts and reorgs, at any point in time there is a certain fixed and hierarchical relationship between organizational units, and certain areas of information that will always be more important to external audiences requiring predictable, easy pathways. Hard-linking within a directory structure, supplemented by the more organic linking that occurs over time, may be a better way to go in that instance.

But, here’s the rub…

With WPMU, my understanding is that it’s one or the other: Subdomains or subdirectories. Upon installing the app. Sigh…

Ideally, a combination of the two would be best. That is, chunking the site into its major organizational (or content) areas, and then having a sub-directory structure beneath each one. This could, for example, play out as follows:

  • umw.edu
  • umw.edu/admissions
  • umw.edu/about
  • umw.edu/directory
  • etc.

AND

  • education.umw.edu
  • education.umw.edu/advising
  • education.umw.edu/dean
  • etc.

At this point in time, if we were to set the sub-domains in stone, we may regret it down the road — cgps.umw.edu anyone?

To get to the combination of sub-domain and sub-directory, my understanding is that we’d need a SEPARATE WPMU INSTALL FOR EACH SUB-DOMAIN. Can you spell maintenance headache? (Of course you can — we ARE at a University, afterall).

I found a plug-in that purports to do this:

http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/wordpress-mu-domain-mapping/

I’m always hesitant to use a plug-in for what seems to be core application functionality, but, hey, it’s a development environment! Still are there folks out there who have tried this plugin, and what kind of success have you had?