Brands have sub-domains for a variety of reasons - to separate their sites for different audiences, to split their offerings, and so on. 

However, this can lead to conflict between the main and sub-domains if this strategy is not applied properly. 

Before Google ended clustering in search results, this may well have worked well for brands, allowing them greater visibility in search results

In this post, I'll show these sub-domain conflicts are affecting Ladbrokes, Coral, Oasis, ASOS and Barclay's. 

Sub-domains and gambling sites

Several gambling brands have sub-domains for their various products. In this case, Ladbrokes has sub-domains for casino, sports betting and poker. 

However, these different domains (and departments) seem to be competing against each other for search rankings. 

This has harmed Ladbrokes' search positions, as the chart shows. Having ranked on the first page for the first few months of the year, it's rankings have fluctuated and now it's on page three for 'poker bet'. 

(Click image for larger version)

We see something similar on this chart, for the keyword 'place bet'.

It's a very broad phrase, and could therefore be relevant to several of Ladbrokes' sub-domains. This chart shows six sub-domains competing for the term. 

As you can see, they all can't rank at once, so they're almost taking turns to be the Ladbrokes URL returned for that search. 

This is no good for any of them, and Ladbrokes needs to decide which page it wants to rank for that phrase. 

(Click image for larger version)

 

Here for 'horse racing newbury' Coral's news pages are competing with its betting pages for the term. 

Presumably, Coral would rather direct search traffic to a page where they can bet straight away, rather than news articles. 

(Click image for larger version)

It's the same for 'Goodwood betting', a very valuable term to rank for. 

Here, conflict between the homepage and news pages means that rankings for the term have fluctuated wildly. 

Indeed, the news pages seem to have been more popular with Google, the reverse of what Coral would want.

For the Glorious Goodwood meeting at the end of July, which is when Google searches for this term peak every year, the news site was the highest ranking of Coral's pages. A missed opportunity. 

(Click image for larger version)

Again, we have the news site competing with the betting pages for the term 'Chelsea bet'. 

(Click image for larger version)

For Ladbrokes and Coral, these conflicts between sub-domains are harming search rankings for some very valuable keywords, which indicate an intent to purchase on the part of the searcher. 

A look at the keyword estimates from Google's AdWords Planner shows the value of these terms: 

Page one is the place to be to pick up this traffic, so Ladbrokes and Coral will be missing out by lingering on pages two and below for terms they are capable of ranking for. 

This lack of organic visibility may well be the reason that Ladbrokes is paying for PPC ads on most of the above terms, while Coral is also there for 'chelsea bet'. 

At £26 a click, Ladbrokes and Coral's sub-domain conflicts are costing the companies in terms of PPC spend and missed organic leads. 

Banking sites

Switch banks is a valuable term, £5 upwards according to Google. 

The chart below shows the conflict between 'Ask Barclays', its Q&A pages, and the main homepage for the term. 

As we can see, the homepage was happily ranking on the top two pages of Google between January and May this year. 

After this, the Ask Barclays pages are playing havoc with the homepage's search positions, forcing it out of the SERPs most of the time, and ranking much lower itself. 

I'm not sure what happened on May 1. Perhaps Barclays launched 'Ask Barclays' or placed it on that sub-domain.

Whatever the reason, though the content may be useful, it hasn't helped the bank's broader SEO strategy. 

(Click image for larger version)

 

In this example, Barclays' online banking start page is interfering with the homepage's rankings for the term 'banking'. 

(Click image for larger version)

Sub-domain conflicts from fashion sites

Here, the ASOS marketplace site seems to be outdoing the main site for 'wool cardigan' and the overall effect seems to be that both are brought down the rankings for the term. 

Having started out at 16 in Google, ASOS now ranks at 56 for this term. Essentially, only one site can rank for the term, so ASOS needs to decide which one is more important. 

(Click image for larger version)

 

Here, it seems to be a tag page which is interfering with Oasis' rankings for 'red cardigan' 

It's not a page the company would want to lead searchers to. Though the homepage would be better than this, Oasis would surely want to rank for a product or category page instead.  

(Click image for larger version)

So how do sites resolve these sub-domain conflicts? 

The answers are varied, and will depend on business goals.

For example, Ladbrokes may have different betting sub-domains as this helps it to measure the ROI for each department, while Coral has launched a news site, which is great from a content marketing perspective, but it hasn't considered the SEO effects.  

According to Sam Silverwood-Cope from PI-Datametrics:

There's lots of different types of sub-domain conflict here and ultimately it is the same as internal cannibalisation. It's down to appropriate sign posting, snippet content, theming, internal linking, communication between departments and having a coordinated strategy. If you walked into a shop and saw that "womenswear" was on the 1st floor and on the 5th floor, the shopper would be confused. Plus one of those areas would get more custom than the other. This is the same with a site and how Google responds to it. 

It also seems a relatively naive tactic for separate sub-domains to constantly attempt to perform for the same search term as a different department, eg "Poker" without at anytime thinking "maybe we should consolidate our efforts?". If sites want their audiences to see their different departments, then why not have easy access between folders? If they don't then perhaps the companies should have different URLs, with unique content and theming. 

There is a common theme here, and it's that sites can only rank on Google for one landing page per term.

They therefore need to decide which landing page is more valuable to them, and provide clear indications to Google to implement this. 

Graham Charlton

Published 29 September, 2014 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is editor in chief at SaleCycle, and former editor at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin.

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Comments (4)

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Joe Morecroft

Great article, Graham. SEO cannibalization seems to be a hot topic right now. Something which could be an easy pitfall!

almost 4 years ago

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Calum Harris

Very interesting read. I am intrigued to see the effect that competing sub domains can have on a companies on-line visibility.

almost 4 years ago

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Paul Rudman

Interesting read, although this sentence isn't strictly true - "There is a common theme here, and it's that sites can only rank on Google for one landing page per term", we all know that Google started showing multiple listings for authority sites on search terms a few years ago, e.g. 'health and safety assessment' top 3 results all hse.gov.uk.

I guess unless you're going to drilldown into every online marketing initiative these companies are conducting you're not going to truly understand the reasons for particular ranking drops.

It's no surprise that it's news or blog pages that may start to rank instead of the category or product page since it's likely they have a higher volume of more quality content on them (especially important with the emphasis in the Google updates on quality of web copy), but with big brands like these with 1000s of pages you're always going to have some 'SEO overlap' with keywords, the key as far as I'm concerned is just to monitor your listings & URLs and if you feel it's not the most relevant landing page for leads and conversions then cross-link heavily into the page you would like to see or just delete the news page, after all, you'd rather lose a news reader than a potential buyer.

And also not to forget the potential Google conspiracy theory that it pushes more and more companies into investing heavily in Adwords by pushing down 'sales' related pages in the organic rankings in favour of 'informational' pages, not that I necessarily subscribe to it, but something to consider!

almost 4 years ago

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Mark Bolitho, New Business Director - Ecommerce at more2

Really interesting Graham, especially in light of the huge buzz around content at the moment.

Hope all's well, are you at Expo later this week at all?

almost 4 years ago

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