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Having a domain strategy seem to be the latest thing. The discussion about it circles mostly around legal, seo or branding issues but if you want to look at it from a usability perspective - how should you actively structure your url or domain strategy. I've seen a couple of approaches:

  • Google has put its different online services such as maps.google.com, mail.google.com as sub domains. The benefit that I could see here is that its quicker to reach these tools by only typing the product name in the browser adressbar and let the autocomplete functionality in the browser do the rest.
  • 37 signals uses a similar approach for their online service Basecamp. When I have registered my company I get this url: mycompany.basecamphq.com. That way makes it easy for me as a user to quickly reach my specific web space.
  • Apple on the other hand uses the directory approach for their products such as apple.com/iphone, apple.com/store. They also redirects domains such as www.iphone.com to apple.com/iphone which I guess is for mainly legal reasons.
  • Proctor and Gamble separates all their different brands using unique domain names.
  • I've seen other companies structure it's content by target groups and then their products (brand.com/business/productname) or by product category (brand.com/productcategory/theproduct) which makes it easy for me to understand where I am on a large web site.
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A related question on Webmasters SE: E-commerce + CMS: 2 sites or one? –  unor Sep 20 '13 at 10:58
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3 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

(tl;dr: Click through the presentation mentioned below to see how the BBC designed their URLs and to learn a bunch of other stuff you probably hadn't thought about much)

The best approach to this I've seen is described by the BBC's UX director Mike Atherton in Beyond the Polar Bear (SlideShare).

One of his main arguments is the use of domain-driven design, a concept explained in the book of the same name, Domain-Driven Design: Tackling Complexity in the Heart of Software by Eric Evans. Mike's takeaway of "domain modelling", which is what domain-driven design teaches you about (slide 18):

  • A way of representing the important "things" within a subject, and the relationships between those things
  • A way of using the subject knowledge of users and experts to influence software design
  • Inspired by the abovementioned book

Mike explains in the presentation that the BBC was looking to reorganise all of its sites into a simpler model. This is what he says a model could look like:

enter image description here

He explains that to approach modelling the domain, his team talked with domain experts (eg. the people who makes shows for the BBC) and to users of the website and tried to build up a model of the whole thing using their feedback. When talking to domain experts it was important to determine how their language differs from that of end users and decide which approach you want to use in your domain (probably that of the end user).

After that, he says, you look for the different canonical "things" in your domain model. This will help you build up a URL structure later on, but is also just a good domain modelling practice.

enter image description here

Another point he mentions is that you should make sure that your "things" are named the same throughout your information architecture. That means that a thing has the same name in the URL, in the content of the page, in the code, etc. This will also help prevent headaches later on.

Following his approach, he argues will lead to:

enter image description here

Skipping forward a bit, we find:

enter image description here

This is a fantastic hierarchy of needs for a URI. Many programmers will tell you URIs are hackable, human-readable and persistent, but this maps each of those to users, which is what UX can be really great at.

So what did the BBC actually end up doing with their URLs? Mike shows up some options that didn't make it:

enter image description here

and the one they ended up going with:

enter image description here

That ends up not being very human-readable or hackable, but it is persistent. He explains why they decided to go with this solution:

  • In the BBC's case, programmes need to be uniquely identified, and this does that regardless of the context of the show
  • Losing human readability is an acceptable compromise to get persistence
  • Marketing-friendly URLs can still be used with a 301 redirect

Later, he mentions that this solution means that the user experience is enhanced without undermining the structure. From a domain modelling point of view, that's a win.

A large part of the presentation is dedicated to a case study of how they approached the domain modelling challenge at the BBC. I recommend reading through all of it, as a site of the BBC's size doesn't come along very often and you can learn a lot from it.

Some of Mike's closing slides are great food for thought. On slide 88 he mentions "UX thinking goes all the way down" and explains that user experience is more than just presentation and interaction, it can include things like business logic, SEO, document and URI design. Arguing in favour of domain modelling, he says you should try using it on projects of any size, not just those as hefty in scope as the BBC. Beyond making URLs hackable, human-readable and persistent, he says you should make your content portable and sharable too. He also mentions that you should start designing from information, not from wireframes, which he calls a bottom-up approach.

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I think generally it is not a UX issue, rather branding and marketing, but from UX point of view the best should be to have unique domain names for each brand/product.

Unique domain name

  • easiest to recall
  • most internet users usually type in 'somthing'.com, when they are looking for official websites

Subdomain - the second chance (if you cannot purchase all .com/.anything domain name for each of your products)

  • easy association with the product and the brand name

  • just like you mentioned 'autocomplete' can help in this case

Subdirectory - similar to subdomain, can be used the same way or for further categorizing products or services

I think Google uses the subdomain structure mainly because of branding. With all they products and services they want to strengthen the Google brand. (they would have the money to buy all domain names)

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I must say that Googles branding of products through domain names confuses the hell out of me - using many of their services and having to remember URLS / brand names for analytics, adwords, gmail, docs etc not all of which are accessible from a central account page results in a few minutes each time I switch service to look something up. –  Adam Fellowes Feb 10 '12 at 10:07
    
@Adam: That's what bookmarks are for. Though I never bother bookmarking most Google services. maps. mail. docs. etc. seem pretty intuitive to me. –  Lèse majesté Feb 10 '12 at 12:19
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The approach taken on URL and its structure is probably more the result of CMS configuration and preferences of those responsible for configuring the CMS when few subdomains / brands / products existed.

As you say domain strategies are the 'latest thing', a domain strategy seems to me to be a new term for clean URLs that emerged along with web standards to allow for an understandable means of navigating to and getting access to data from across the web.

My hunch is that until recently probably very little though has been given to or provided by a UX function.

I'm not sure like many concepts it something that UX should solely stipulate as many business factors will influence the outcome. You note the inclusion of brands, products and product categories in URLs. These like many other aspects of digital expose the internal divisions and silos that are found in many organisations of all sizes - the breaking down of these is probably the most difficult problem UX should aim to resolve. Once resolved then the clean domain strategy becomes clear to all offering a simple means of navigating a domain successfully.

In this scenario User Experience is addressing the demands of Customer Experience that traditionally is the responsibility of marketing or product teams.

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