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My site allows people to create free websites and provides them with a subdomain link to their site. For example, a user bsmith will end up with a site at bsmith.example.com, and pages like bsmith.example.com/pages/about-me.

Obviously, I want my main site example.com to get as much SEO relevance as possible, but likewise I would want my users to have some of their own. I've created canonical URLs that follow the pattern example.com/site/bsmith/pages/about-me.

I have roughly 100k pages that follow this pattern, but is this the best idea? Is this diluting my main site, or strengthening it? I also offer a premium, paid service. Would there be any reason or benefit (to the users) to point the canonical URL specifically to their site instead of the main site, if they're a paying member? I can also support top-level domains, so would it make more sense then?

Thank you.

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    Honestly, I am not sure I understand the use of your canonical tag. Do these pages exist on the parent domain? Is so, then why do they appear twice- parent domain and sub-domain? I would let the sub-domains be sub-domains and avoid serving content twice even with a canonical tag. The sub-domains will positively effect the parent domain providing that they are of value. I would kick junk users to the curb where necessary and go for reasonable quality sites as much as possible. – closetnoc Mar 16 '15 at 19:45
  • @closetnoc thanks for the reply! I may not be doing anything other than proving that I don't actually know what I'm doing here. :) I recently implemented the canonical URLs because I figured the main site would get a larger SEO boost from it. I realize this probably isn't the best for the users, though. My main site does fairly well in serp; top 5 in Google for my primary search terms, and first or second page for many more. That said though, the main site really only has about 10 pages of content. I'm worried that it's not enough to hold its own weight. Thoughts (on top of adding more pages)? – trnelson Mar 16 '15 at 20:01
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    I used to be a web host. So I know what you are going through. You can create citations (avoid making links since that is a Google no no) on the bottom of your customer pages. Links are okay if there are not too many and are natural and not coercive. Being that you are hosting these sites, a simple text citation is probably best. If the canonical tag leads to nothing, I would remove them. As well, there is no substitute for content- sorry. You can create help pages for your users that would help others too (wink, hint-hint). Pretend you are talking to your customers and you will be fine. – closetnoc Mar 16 '15 at 20:23
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    You know, the sitemap is an interesting idea- it may be brilliant! I am not sure. Time will tell. You could also create site maps for your users, but then I might remove them from your sitemap. Not sure. I assume that the canonical links did not really go anywhere. If that is the case, I would remove them. But if they do, then I would look again to make sure it aligns with the intent of canonical links. As far as citations, you have my meaning perfectly. This site created/hosted/supported (pick one or another) by example.com as text will help. You are treading on new ground! Good for you!! – closetnoc Mar 16 '15 at 20:46
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    Yeah. We did not have these issues when I was a web host... ;-) Sitemaps, canonical tags, and all that did not exist. I would suspect that you will want each site owner's site to perform correctly, but then again- it is free! My clientele where professionals and about half was charity hosting where the site was free. So I get where you are coming from. I think search engines would be rather forgiving if you change the sitemap scheme later if you decide to sit and think about how things should work. It often takes me a day or two to think about things sometimes- but then again, I am old(ish). – closetnoc Mar 17 '15 at 19:45
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To be perfectly honest, I believe using a canonical url for example.com/user/page/articlefrom user.example.com/page/article would be a poor use of your business case.

You are essentially stating that, all things being equal, you'd prefer organic traffic to go to /user/page/article instead of a sub-domain.

Whilst this might help grow authority of your root domain, it will have diminishing returns over time and the slight edge in authority would probably not be worth the dilution of relevance each individual subdomain would have.

It is a lot harder to have subfolders as entities recognised by Google than it would be for subdomains.

For a live example, typing related:doodlemum.wordpress.com produces real world examples of related websites, whereas an alternative url structure featuring sub-folders would be very difficult to produce the same results.

I would advise against this unless you perform some very small tests of a subset of subdomains/folders to conclusively prove that you are getting greater volume and quality of traffic from the /user/page/article format vs the user.example.com/page/article format.

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I completely understand what you are trying to do as I have run into similar situations with my real estate clients and their agents. For example:

  • bob-smith.realestateco.com/how-to-buy-a-home
  • mary-jane.realestateco.com/how-to-buy-a-home
  • www.realestateco.com/how-to-buy-a-home

Here the company wants to rank for this page but each agent wants to have their own branded page with their own image and styling so their clients can see they're the real deal.

Honestly I'd recommend going with the subdirectory route which will strengthen a single domain vs breaking out your value within subdomains. This way also makes your life easier when looking at analytics and GWT data you can break out traffic by subdirectories.

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