Are Microsites Good or Bad for SEO?

A while back I wrote a blog post spotlighting four great examples of brands using microsites for content marketing.

Microsites, when done properly, can be a great marketing strategy – as brands like Virgin Mobile and Coca-Cola have demonstrated. However, there are still several misconceptions about how microsites can benefit (or harm) SEO.

From a search perspective, we don’t often recommend microsites to our clients. And here’s why: If you’re primarily concerned about maximizing your organic presence in the SERPs, it’s almost always better to host content on a new subdomain or subdirectory instead of a new microsite.

Let me explain.

Microsites and Organic Rankings

Many companies think launching a microsite (or several microsites) is a great way to dominate the SERPs. In theory, if you were able to rank your corporate website number 1 for a given keyword, and own positions 2-10 with microsites, you could have complete ownership of the SERP and be able to direct a whole bunch of traffic back to your brand.

In reality, this is never going to happen. While it’s true that Google is unlikely to show more than a couple search results from a single domain, it’s equally unlikely that you would be able to build up enough authority for a bunch of microsites to have them rank alongside your primary domain. Building domain authority is not easy; that’s why SEO is big business. So it’s not simply a matter of creating a new microsite – or several – and kicking back while the extra traffic rolls in.

Let’s imagine another scenario. You’re a small business owner who operates several custom cake shops in different Canadian cities. You’re interested in ranking for “local intent” keywords so you set up separate microsites with keyword-optimized domains like CustomCakesBarrie.com, CustomCakesCaledon.com, CustomCakesNewmarket.com and so forth.

Custom Cakes Barrie SERP

Great idea, right?

Not so much. Beyond the questionable spaminess of the domain names, this approach suffers from the same problem as the previous scenario. Why split authority between several sites when you could earn it all on one? No matter how much traffic and links each of your individual microsites earns, think of how much more traffic and links you would earn if you concentrated all that content on a single domain.

There are at least four main reasons why creating microsites is often harmful as an SEO strategy.

1. You’re diluting your domain authority and spreading your content too thin. You’ve probably spent a lot of time building up authority on your primary website (whether consciously or not), and now none of your microsites will be benefiting from it. Instead of having one really strong website with great content and an awesome link profile, you will end up with a bunch of weak sites with thin content and mediocre link profiles.

2. It’s easy to get hit with a penalty. It’s tempting to use microsites to create a network of links between one keyword-rich URL to another, but doing so will likely lead to a penalty slap from Google (you can thank Penguin for that one). Many a webmaster has fallen into this trap before.

3. It costs more money and takes more effort. Registering, hosting, and developing multiple domains is expensive – not to mention time-consuming. Are you really prepared to invest all those dollars and hours when there are probably more effective investments you could make?

4. It creates a bad user experience. It’s generally easier for users if all the content they need is in one place so they don’t have to jump around between multiple URLs. Spreading content too thin not only harms SEO, it also harms user experience.

Domains, Subdomains, and Subdirectories

So if microsites aren’t usually a great strategy for SEO, where should you host your new content? Typically, we recommend that our clients host new content on a subdomain or subdirectory of their existing site. Not only is this approach easier to manage, it also has much clearer SEO benefits.

Recall the difference between domains, subdomains, and subdirectories.

– A domain (or root domain) is the top-level hierarchy of a domain – i.e. the .[blank].[blank] part. Some examples of domains are *.catalyst.ca and *.myawesomewebsite.com.

– A subdomain is a “third level” domain name that is part of a larger, top-level domain – i.e. the part immediately preceding the .[blank.[blank] part. For example, blog.myawesomewebsite.com and info.myawesomewebsite.com are both subdomains of the *.myawesomewebsite.com root domain.

– A subdirectory is a folder behind a domain address – i.e. the part at the end that follows the “/” symbol. Some examples of subdirectories would be catalyst.ca/blog/ and catalyst.ca/seo/.

Domains-Subdomains-Subdirectories

From an SEO perspective, the main benefit of using subdomains or subdirectories is that – unlike with microsites – your content still benefits from the authority of the root domain. Thus blog.myawesomewebsite.com and myawesomewebsite.com/blog would both be reinforced by the accomplishments of the *.myawesomewebsite.com root domain.

There’s still some argument among SEOs about whether it’s better to host content on a subdomain or a subdirectory (we typically favour subdirectories). According to Google’s Matt Cutts, however, it doesn’t really matter.

Regardless of which option you choose, the most important thing is to populate it with great content. That’s what’s going to help you rank better in the search engine results.

Time for a pop quiz to see how closely you’ve been following:

If our intrepid custom cake entrepreneur from the previous example were interested in launching new wedding-cake-related content with the primary goal of maximizing visibility in the SERPs, would he be better to register a new domain (BeautifulWeddingCakes.com), create a new subdomain for his existing website (wedding.BeautifulCustomCakes.com) or create a new subdirectory (BeautifulCustomCakes.com/wedding)?

Answer: Either a new subdomain or a new subdirectory but not a new microsite.

When are Microsites a Good Idea?

As Hamlet would say, that is the question.

Some SEOs would immediately respond with “never” but I don’t think that’s true. As I pointed out in my previous blog post, big brands like Virgin Mobile and Coca-Cola have done some really cool things with microsites. We as an agency have achieved some very impressive results for clients using microsites. It all depends on what your goals and resources are.

Here are some situations where a microsite might be a good idea:

1. You’re launching a specific campaign and are planning on directing paid traffic to the microsite.

2. You have significant time and resources to invest in building authority for your microsite over the long term.

3. The microsite content would not “fit” on your corporate website for whatever reason.

4. You don’t want the connection between your microsite and your brand to be obvious (i.e. if you’re launching a website as PR move to fight bad press targeting your brand).

The bottom line: There are situations where microsites are beneficial, but unless you’re a big brand with tons of resources to devote to it, it probably isn’t the best strategy for SEO. My advice would be to focus first on building authority for your primary website with great content and earned backlinks. Then, if you ever reach Virgin Mobile levels of success, you can start experimenting with cool microsites.

Have you seen success using microsites? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

6 thoughts on “Are Microsites Good or Bad for SEO?

  1. Great summary explaining why, although this can seem like an intelligent tactic, it isn’t necessarily so in most cases.

    Like Brett says though, it is possible that microsites can be implemented effectively in select circumstances. One of our auto clients recently leveraged a microsite that enabled them to double serve paid search ads on competitor terms. Through this, they were able to take over additional SERP real estate on competitor searches while moving the competitors to the side results. When two ads were shown, their search conversion rate increased almost 200%.

    Still, although this tactic was successful in this case, I think its important to caution that its effectiveness is highly dependent upon the nature of the client (and their resources) and that this should not be thought of as a universally sound strategy.

    Great stuff!

    • Thanks Brian! I agree that microsites work best when used in conjunction with paid search. For large companies that can afford to invest in such a strategy, the pay-offs can be huge. Smaller companies, however, would likely be better off spending their dollars elsewhere.

  2. Microsites are being used in real estate sector with great success as they use microsites for the promotion a specific property launched mainly for short-term campaigns.

  3. Microsites work if you do have the resource of budget, time, and effort. That’s the first thing you should ask yourself before jumping into creating one for your SEO campaign. If you answered no, then you just let your ends meet if by having a subdomain or a subdirectory doesn’t give you much authority, trust and traffic. Spend time and effort on your existing project to earn what should be earned. First step must always be reality check so problems won’t spread out. Focus first on things that you have the luxury of time to work on before working on another project.

  4. Hey Brett – great post! Came across this while researching microsites. My team and I are created a guide to microsite marketing and we found this post really helpful. Just wanted to say nice job and thanks for sharing!

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