Whether or not you set up your e-learning course on a subdomain has implications for SEO and user experience.
One question that can be a stumbling block for new users is whether they should host their course on a subdomain of their website or as a regular subdirectory. This can be a difficult question with significant implications for the rest of your site, and as such, we felt they were worth digging into.
For those who don’t know what a subdomain is, you’ve probably seen it in various site URLs. If your primary domain is mysite.com, then a subdomain might be course.mysite.com. On the other hand, mysite.com/course would be a subdirectory of your main site.
So, what’s the difference? Well, subdirectory follows the normal organizational structure and hierarchy of your site. Meanwhile, a subdomain is treated like a completely different site. For instance, while Google can recognize the relationship between subdomains and primary domains, they are ranked separately. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on what you want for your site.
Now that we have that clear, let’s take a deeper look at scenarios where it may or may not be advisable to use a subdomain.
1. Is e-learning the main purpose of your site, or is it primarily about something else?
You’re running a non-profit, and your primary domain focuses on promoting your cause, persuading members of your community to take interest, and building your donor base. However, you’d also like to create training materials for your volunteer staff. A subdomain would help you separate these two purposes so as not to confuse visitors.
On the other hand, if your non-profit is all about training—say, helping small businesses and people in low-income communities learn how to do their taxes—then keeping the training on the primary domain would be more appropriate.
2. How large is the e-learning component of your site?
For years, you’ve been running a popular website devoted to helping emerging writers find representation in the publishing industry. Now you’re thinking of adding a small course to help readers polish their pitch. This would be a good use for a subdirectory.
Or, let’s say you run a popular sewing website. The front-end portion is devoted to the sewing community, where bloggers share their projects and sell patterns. However, you also have a range of resources for home sewers who want to learn advanced skills, from sewing with leather to making couture tailoring alterations. This may be a case where splitting the course component into a subdomain would provide a useful separation of functions.
3. Do you want to use different themes for your e-learning course and your main site?
Let’s say you designed your primary domain for ecommerce—to sell kitchen appliances, for instance—but now you also want to sell baking courses. The same design used for your primary domain may not be well-suited for e-learning. While you could find a way to make the two work together, it may be more appropriate keeping them apart.
Conversely, if you want to give users a seamless navigation experience between your course and the rest of your website, use the subdirectory structure. You could link back and forth from your primary nav and your subdomains, but it’s messy and if you’re having them linked together so much, why would you create a subdomain in the first place?
4. Do you want your e-learning content to contribute toward your domain strength?
We have had users ask us in the past if their paid content will show up in search engines, and (to keep a long answer short), the answer is no: any course that requires registration is protected, and learners can’t just access it from a web search. That said, creating a subdomain is a way to keep it a little more hidden away until learners purchase a course.
On the other hand, what if you have several open courses as well as paid ones, and you want them to contribute toward the SEO strength of your main site? In this case, you should keep the courses as subdirectories.
5. Do you want to segment your audiences?
Many course creators are speaking to a range of audiences. For instance, maybe you want to offer a version of your site in a different language, or one version of your site requires more security to protect it from cyberattacks. Or you may want to set up a subdomain for internal training, and another subdomain for customer support. Segmenting your audiences helps prevent users from wandering into the wrong area of your site, and simply a cleaner way of organizing things.
However, if this isn’t a concern, you can go ahead and keep your course in a subdirectory. In many ways, the difference is a mental one: if it’s easier for you to think about and manage your site by having everything one way or another, choose the one that works best for you.
Using a subdomain is the right choice under certain circumstances. You just have to know what they are.
Subdomains can make your site easier to run in some cases, and add a layer of obfuscation and confusion in others. If you keep the purpose of your site in mind as you begin, the right choice for your project should be clear from the onset.
If you’re still on the fence, our advice is this: for smaller websites, keep things simple by hosting everything on your primary domain. If you’re a larger website, split things off into a subdomain.