The purpose of this article is to clarify when to use subdomains and when to use subdirectories on church websites.
A subdirectory URL looks like this: https://mychurch.org/sermons/
This topic is especially relevant to churches that have more than one campus. It is also applicable to churches that have content needing to be presented in significantly varied user experiences, or content that is built on keywords related to Christian ministry, but not directly related to primary church keywords, such as ‘local church’, ‘church near me’, ‘church in [city]’, ‘non-denominational church’, ‘[denomination] church’.
In most cases, a subdirectory structure is the best way to go for a church’s main website content. It’s simply easier and more efficient to manage. It can also protect you from spreading out your “SEO juice” across multiple websites. However, there are most certainly some situations that call for the use of subdomains. In this article, we’ll explore these different scenarios in depth.
Used incorrectly, subdomains can pull domain authority away from your church’s main website. Be sure to read this whole article to gain an understanding of best practices for choosing between subdomains and subdirectories.
Choosing a structure that you can maintain for the long haul is a critical step in your website development, because, as we say, changing rocketships midway to Mars creates lots of extra work.
What’s the Difference Between a Subdomain and a Subdirectory?
A subdomain is essentially a distinct website, existing separate and apart from your main domain. Subdomains may or may not make use of the same hosting environment (providing it supports multiple sites) and/or content management system as the main website. On the other hand, a subdirectory typically exists within the main website simply as a way to better organize content.
Church subdomains are useful when there exists content and functionality that are different from the rest of the site. When viewing a URL, subdomains are indicated by the section to the left of the root URL. For instance, peoria.mychurch.org and sermons.mychurch.org are subdomains of mychurch.org.
Church subdirectories are used when there are content and functionality that are congruent with the rest of the site. When viewing a URL, subdirectories are indicated by the section to the right of the root URL. For instance, mychurch.org/peoria/ and mychurch.org/sermons/ are subdirectories of mychurch.org.
When Are Subdomains Useful for Churches?
Subdomains are especially useful for churches in these four situations:
- In the first situation, you have a campus that is so different from the parent campus that it shares very little in the way of branding, staff, location, content, calendars, and weekly service format.
- In the second situation, you have web content that calls for customized functionality. When this need arises, you should proceed with a subdomain without further analysis. Here are two examples:
- A good example of this situation is in the presence of a sermon video player. Ideally, your sermon video player would have functionality similar to Netflix. This would provide viewers of your church’s sermon videos a user-friendly experience allowing people to be engaged in more of your sermons. It would be viewable by Category, Trending Now, Recent Series, and Featured Videos, all to make it easy for users to find the topics that are most important to their growth.
- Another example of this is in your online giving portal. This calls for the kind of financial functionality that people are accustomed to seeing elsewhere on the web, such as the ability to update or add debit cards, credit cards, bank accounts, etc.
- In the third situation, you have a need for abundant Felt Needs Christian information used for generating Google Ad Grant web traffic or organic web traffic to your church, with pages built on keywords other than ‘church’.
- Because your church has varied ministries that all have unique keywords, this opens the door to create online content written in such a way as to be a transitional midpoint between a Google Grant Search Ad and your church’s main domain. This is really helpful for generating Google Ad Grant Search Ads that have strong Google Quality Scores.
- In the fourth situation, you have content that is built on different focus keywords than ‘church’.
- An example would be ‘Live Christian Music in Dallas’. This might be pertinent for a church that’s been blessed with extraordinary musical talent and has strong attraction power in the community.
- Another example would be a church acting as a local venue for guest Christian musical acts.
- Here is an article named Church Domain Authority Initiatives that lays out some ideas, many of which would benefit from a subdomain.
Deciding what Web Structure to use in a Multi-Campus Church Scenario
To decide whether a subdomain or a subdirectory is appropriate, you can perform the analysis outlined below. If the analysis results in a toss-up, then we recommend you go with a subdirectory because it’s cheaper, simpler, and easier to manage.
Let’s start by looking at what needs to be considered when you have a multi-campus church. Your answers to each of the questions listed below will point to either a subdomain or a subdirectory.
- Do your campuses have the same pastor and services or are there different pastors and services at each?
- If you answered that they are the same, that points to a subdirectory structure, and if you answered that they are different, that points to a subdomain.
- Are your campuses in different metropolitan areas (i,e. One in Minneapolis and one in Chicago)?
- If you answered that they’re in the same metropolitan area, that points to a subdirectory structure, and if you answered that they’re in different metropolitan areas, that points to a subdomain.
- Do your campuses all report to the same executive and administrative teams?
- If you answered that they report to the same executive and administrative teams, that points to a subdirectory structure, and if you answered that they report to varied executive and administrative teams, that points to a subdomain.
- Do your campuses all generally feature the same events?
- If you answered that they feature the same events, that points to a subdirectory structure, and if you answered that they feature different events, that points to a subdomain.
- Do your campuses all utilize the same name and branding?
- If you answered that they use the same name and branding, that points to a subdirectory structure, and if you answered that they use different names and branding, that points to a subdomain.
Using a Translation Plugin for a Second Language
The best way to deal with adding a second language to your website is to install a translation plugin. The reason this is the best solution is that all of your content stays in one place, thus relieving you of the significant burden of keeping multiple websites synchronized. Therefore we would not recommend a subdomain for the second language.
Steps Needed to Track Church Subdomain Data
Subdomain data is not automatically tracked with your main domain data. You need to take these steps to track it:
- You must set up and verify church subdomains separately in Google Search Console and then combine them as property sets.
- You must set up and verify church subdomains separately in Google Analytics and then take these steps to combine the the church domain and subdomain together.
- You must set up and track conversion goal performance for each subdomain separately.
Cons of Subdomains
- Subdomains may each require their own hosting and Content Management System, so there are more assets to manage and the costs are higher.
- Subdomains each require their own Google Analytics and Google Search Console accounts, so there is more data to watch and act upon. However these can be combined into the parent accounts.
- It’s not as seamless to navigate back and forth between a subdomain and the main domain as it is to navigate between subdirectories.
- A subdomain can sometimes get valuable backlinks that you wish had backlinked to your main domain. This can increase the Domain Authority of the subdomain at the expense of the main domain.
- A subdomain can thin out keyword density, thus reducing it in the main domain and negatively impacting its overall SEO strength.
Here is what Google has to say about Subdomains versus Subdirectories.
WordPress Multisite Structure for Churches
When it is deemed that more than one site (and thus, at least one subdomain) is appropriate for a church, it is important to determine if more than one of the sites will be powered by WordPress. If so, a WordPress Multisite installation is the optimal solution.
What is WordPress Multisite?
WordPress Multisite allows you to run multiple WordPress sites from within a single WordPress installation. This is advantageous from an organizational perspective, as multiple distinct sites can all be managed from a single location. Users can exist at the root level, or the site-specific level.
It is notable that WordPress Multisite can function using a network of subdomains or subdirectories. However, as these are themselves distinct websites, subdomains typically fit this model better. Additionally, it is very important that the decision to use Multisite is made before development begins.
Pros and Cons
When all contained sites are being developed from scratch, there are no significant drawbacks to the WordPress Multisite model. If we are going to be developing multiple, distinct, from-scratch WordPress sites for a client, a WordPress Multisite installation should be used to contain and manage these sites.
That being said, it should be noted that moving an existing WordPress site into a Multisite installation is both challenging and time consuming. Thus, in situations where we are adding an additional distinct site as a subdomain extension to an existing WordPress site, we typically would not attempt to retrofit the existing site into the Multisite model. In these situations, the upfront cost/risk will rarely justify the benefit.
Impact of Subdomains on Church Backlink Building
One of the most important elements of Domain Authority is the number of reputable backlinks leading to the website. Backlinks are external links leading to your website. They help search robots to crawl your site and rank it correctly with respect to its content. Each backlink is a part of a ranking puzzle. Every website owner should aim to get as many reputable backlinks as they can, because doing so will improve a website’s SEO ranking attributes.
Google interprets backlinks as signals that indicate the website has authoritative material on the subjects the website is about.
Understanding the importance of backlinks leads to the following question that you should ask when considering a subdomain: would more websites be inclined to backlink to the subdomain rather than the main domain? If the answer is yes, that points towards the use of a subdomain.
Let’s use our example of web content about ‘Live Christian Music in Dallas’. It is likely that entertainment websites in the Dallas area such as K-LOVE would be receptive to linking to a subdomain that is entirely about Live Christian music in Dallas; however it’s also understandable that they would be less receptive to linking to the church’s main domain because it would be less relevant to their audience.
Moz is a leading expert in website domain authority and you can learn more about the value of backlinks on their website.
Planning for Keywords that are Used on Church Subdomains
We have identified dozens of topics encompassing over 4,670 keywords that are extremely relevant to a Christian Church, yet don’t really fit on their main domain. We refer to these as Felt Needs Keywords. For example people are frequently searching in Google for these felt needs keywords.
- was jesus a real man
- signs that God is real
- crisis therapy near me
- history of Jesus Christ
- biblical principles in the workplace
- Christian dating
- religious sermons online
- gambling counseling
- support group for chronic pain sufferers
- will God forgive me
- heroin addict
- verses about trusting God
- what is the purpose of living
- estate planning
- raising a special needs child
- bible on family
- Bible preaching sermons
- Christian parenting
- meaning of life
- evidence of Jesus crucifixion
- how to disciple a child
- good coffee shops near me
- young adult groups
- sermons for kids
- places to learn about the Bible
- contemporary Bible church
- separation counseling
- why should I have faith
- what is faith
- couples Bible study
Every one of these keywords presents an opportunity for the person searching in Google to find a church. Especially when coupled with a Google Ad Grant.
However the difficulty is that adding relevant content to the church’s website for all of these keywords isn’t advisable or even feasible for the following reasons:
- The topics are so wide ranging so they would water down the main websites authority for keywords related to ‘local church’, ‘church near me’, ‘church in [city]’, ‘non-denominational church’, ‘[denomination] church’.
- The breadth of topics would make the church’s main website extremely bulky and complex and thus would mask the core content.
- Over time, there is a need for as many webpages as there are keywords. This is because the page the Google Search links to needs to be perfectly relevant to the wording in the Google Ad. Ultimately this means hundreds (or thousands) of pages need to be created to support the keywords.
Here are two subdomains that a church should utilize to solve this:
- A Sermon Video subdomain that is optimized with a transcription and all of the keyword meta-data.
- A Felt Needs subdomain: a transition landing page church subdomain that facilitates the quick addition of keyword relevant content and meta-data.
Ultimately the subdomains click through to an appropriate place on the church’s main domain. Oftentimes to their ‘attend a service’ call-to-action.
We hope this article has been informative and helped shed some light on the appropriate times to make use of subdomains and subdirectories respectively on your church website. Kudos on making through all the above content! If you have more questions about the above or anything else related to your church website, please feel free to contact us and we’d be happy to discuss them with you.