Insights — From SEO to UX: Reconsidering Subdomains for University Websites

From SEO to UX: Reconsidering Subdomains for University Websites

2023-2024 CMO Study / April 29, 2024
Lex Hade
Lex Hade

Let’s try an exercise.

Open your favorite browser and search for the name of an academic program followed by your institution’s name. What are the first several results? Often, the first few you’ll see are URLs or domains that are actually subdomains—not the URL of the main institutional website.

 Image is a query for an undergraduate program at a major state university. Image has been redacted to exclude name of institution. However, this is an extremely common practice amongst the majority of higher-education institutions.


Now, check the top three Google search results on your browser. According to last year’s study by Backlinko, which analyzed four million Google search results, those top three sites get 54.4% of clicks. Most organic search clicks occur on the first few results, and most users are typically scanning URLs to understand where they are going; they’re reading headlines and the meta description below it to quickly determine the most relevant destination to find the content they are looking for. So, if your university’s main domain isn’t among the first few results, or worst competing with an academic unit’s subdomain, then you’re running the risk of creating a disjointed user experience resulting in inconsistent visual and verbal expressions, different navigations, and different strategies. This ultimately could lower the perception of the brand.


What is a Subdomain, and Why is a Subdomain Used?

Subdomains are separate sections of a website distinct from the main URL. Instead of having the prefix “www” appended to the domain, subdomains have a unique prefix that usually relates to the type of content that lives there—for example, As we saw in our earlier exercise, these can negatively impact a university's institutional website from a user-centric perspective.

Subdomains can be used to create different sections for different types of content or to be governed by different groups of authors within the institution. While they work well for things like marketing campaign landing pages or microsites, their use cases should be limited. When subdomains are used to house different academic programs, schools, departments, or key content for the admission process, it creates an unfriendly experience for users, making it difficult for them to navigate the website and find the information they are looking for.

For example, if a user is searching for information on a specific program, they may be directed to a subdomain that is separate from the main website. This can create confusion and frustration for users who may have to navigate through multiple subdomains to find the information they need. This also makes it difficult for search engines to crawl and index the website, which can hurt the website's visibility and search engine rankings.

Watch the State of Higher Ed Websites

How Subdomains Impact User Experience


When different departments or programs, etc., have their own websites, it’s difficult for users to find information about the university as a whole. They may have to navigate through multiple websites to find the information they need, which is time-consuming and frustrating. This also creates a disjointed user experience, which can hurt the university's reputation and make it difficult to attract new students and faculty members. Oftentimes, site visitors will encounter a different menu or click a button that leads to a new website opening in a new browser tab. There’s no magic design bullet to solve for a clear user journey when navigating multiple domains because, in the user’s mind, it’s all the same brand.

Brand Consistency

Decentralized academic program content can make it difficult for the university to maintain a consistent brand image. If different departments or programs have their own websites, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to ensure the website design and messaging is consistent with the university's overall brand. This leads to confusion and makes it difficult for users to identify with the university's mission and values.


Another issue with decentralized academic program content is that it’s more difficult and time-consuming to maintain and update. If different departments or programs are responsible for maintaining their own websites, it can be challenging to ensure that the content is up-to-date and accurate. This can lead to inconsistencies and errors, which can hurt the university's credibility and reputation.

Think Before You Subdomain

Overall, subdomains and decentralized content can hurt a university's institutional website from a user-centric perspective. By creating a disjointed user experience and making it difficult to find information, these practices can hurt the university's reputation and make it difficult to attract new students and faculty members. To improve the user experience and maintain a consistent brand image, consider consolidating
your university’s websites and centralizing your content.

Lex Hade is our AVP of Digital and has 9+ years of experience in wayfinding, design systems, and UX research. Her accomplishments in marketing, art, and design allow her to translate complex audience research and brand strategy into practical, valuable interactive digital solutions, always keeping the end user in mind. Her strategies are rooted in empathy, context, and simplicity. You can learn more about our 2023-2024 Higher Ed CMO Study and more specifically, on higher ed websites, on the Higher Ed CMO Study website.

At SimpsonScarborough, we believe in the power of data-driven, strategic choices to meet and exceed the demands of today's educational landscape. Contact us anytime to chat about your next project.