Can Microsites Harm Your Primary Site’s Rankings?

Publishing many web sites can be a very challenging process. There are times when organizations have a larger main site and decide to operate one or more smaller sites (aka microsites) as well. Other organizations publish a number of microsites without having a larger site at all.

Whether publishing microsites are in violation of the search engine webmaster guidelines depends on the details of the implementation and the reasons for doing it. Let’s look at a few of the reasons why people do it, and map out the likely search engine viewpoint on them:

SERP domination.. As most of our readers know, the search engines do not like to show more than 2 pages in the SERPs for a given web site. The main reason for this is that the search engines want to show their users a diverse set of results. After all, if a particular web site is not what a user is looking for, showing it to them multiple times in search results is not likely to result in a satisfied user.

Some organizations want to obtain more than 2 results and use microsites as a way to dominate the SERPs. This is done by publishing sites that chase the same sets of keywords, and therefore have similar content. As you might guess, this is against the search engine guidelines. If you choose to pursue this path, you need to do so with great care, and be prepared for the consequences if your group of sites are discovered and linked to you.

Reputation management. Related to our first scenario is when an organization is looking to dominate the SERPs for their brand name. Organizations often start to think about reputation management after seeing a website that publishes disparaging comments about them show up in the SERPs for the organization name or brand. This causes management to become very focused on protecting their reputation and seeking out strategies for dominating the SERPs for their brand name.

One strategy for pursuing reputation management is to build up a series of social media profiles and rely on the trust and authority imbued in those sites to start occupying the SERPs (linking to these profiles from the main site to help drive their rankings up), hopefully above the offending site. This type of strategy is OK with the search engines, but some organizations choose to create microsites for this purpose. This is where the game gets dicier, particularly if the content on the microsites are substantially similar to the content on another site owned by the organization.

Bypass internal management restrictions. Some organizations maintain very tight controls over what can and cannot be done on their main site. These types of controls are often put in place for branding reasons. Novel new marketing programs can get squashed in such an environment. One way around these restrictions is to develop a microsite.

An example would be a large brand that decides to create and promote a new video game on the web, even though they are not in the video game business (i.e. the game is being used as a PR tactic). They may not want to promote such a product directly on the main site, but are perfectly OK with promoting it on a new site thematically focused just on the game. Since the content is different, this is a strategy that the search engines will not have any quibble with.

Microsites as “link friendly” representatives. Sometimes moving differentiated content onto its own domain can make it easier for that content to gain links. For example, a publisher of a highly commercial site may want to create a series of articles that they promote on social media sites such as Digg, Reddit and others.

Why? The users of these types of social media sites are not particularly fond of linking to highly commercial sites. Publishing such articles on a different, “less commercial” domain may raise the probability of the success of the campaign. Once again, this is a scenario that the search engines would not be concerned about because the content is likely to be substantially different.

Beware of diluting your link power

The other factor that publishers should consider when deciding whether or not to publish a microsite is the issue of dividing up their link power. Each site you launch represents a new marketing problem. Each site needs links to prosper, and if a set of sites all share the same links that’s a sure clue to the search engines that something is amiss. As a result, the best linking strategy for a group of microsites is to make sure that the number of links they have in common are limited.

On today’s web where trust and authority play a large role in the ranking of a web site, dividing up your content on multiple sites is often not a good idea. For example, if you get 1000 different web sites to link to a set of 4 web sites, each site probably gets links from 250 to 400 domains (allowing for a modest degree of overlap).

This means that the domains have only the trust and authority of the 250 to 400 domains that link to them. Contrast this with a single site with all 1000 domains linking to it (particularly if they are all largely relevant). This site has a much higher level of trust and authority. The result is that this site can rank higher for the related keywords, and this can be critical in highly competitive areas.

As we have outlined above, there are scenarios where one or more microsites does make sense for an organization. Be careful to make sure that the microsites have unique and differentiated content and you will be OK from the search engine point of view. The other factor you should consider is the dividing of your link juice. In scenarios 3 and 4 outlined above, you may be willing to accept this splitting of links because the other reasons for developing a microsite are compelling enough. Weigh these factors when considering a microsite so you can make a fully informed decision.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Industrial Strength

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About The Author: is the president of Stone Temple Consulting, an SEO consultancy outside of Boston. Eric publishes a highly respected interview series and can be followed on Twitter at @stonetemple.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • Matt Brown

    Interesting post.

    Google break their own rules in terms of SERP domination – a search for ‘google’ on Google shows they dominate the first page with microsites such as maps, labs, video, news etc

  • Winooski

    Eric: Valuable information, and well-organized. Thank you! I’ve made the “don’t dilute your link juice” argument so many times, I should have a handout ready for the next time someone asks about whether to put a new blog or microsite on its own domain. Actually, printing out your article would do the work for me!

    Matt: Good catch. You should totally report them here: http://www.google.com/contact/spamreport.html . [;-)]

  • http://www.highrankings.com/newsletter/ Jill Whalen

    Good article, Eric!

    I’ve been running into this a lot lately in doing website reviews for clients. One site I reviewed was using the microsite strategy targeting the same keywords on numerous sites, and was apparently penalized big time recently.

    While it’s always hard to say for sure if there’s a penalty or if the multiple sites are the reason, tons and tons of traffic and sales were lost, so in this case I do think the multiple sites was the cause.

    Another site I just reviewed today is also using this strategy and is so far successful. The problem is that you just don’t know when the shoe will drop and when every site you own, including the main one, could be penalized.

    It’s fine to have multiple sites as long as there’s a business reason for them and/or they’re generally targeting different keyword phrases. I just wish that Google would consistently penalize for this stuff. It can work for years and appears to be worth it for many companies. When they have 5 or 10 that work great, they get greedy and create 30 or 100. Plus, they see competitors doing it and getting away with it.

    It’s hard to tell clients not to do something when it’s making them tons of money!

  • http://www.seoaly.com Alysson

    Many companies attempting to create a network of microsites don’t realize the potential consequences of doing so. Perhaps one of the most poorly conceived strategies I’ve seen using microsites involved 20+ sites, all targeting essentially the same keyword terms, all with virtually carbon-copy content and all linked back to the main corporate site – as well as all being linked together in site-wide footer links to one another.

    That strategy was proudly touted as genius by a development firm that claimed to be experts in the field of SEO. With business owners getting “outstanding” advice like that from those claiming to be search marketing experts, it’s no wonder so many believe it’s the way to go.

  • http://www.contactatonce.com EG Online Marketing

    Question…..I am a big fan of micro sites. However I am also a big fan of doing it right.

    The question is if I am a car dealer and I want to build micro sites to reach geo targeted campaigns is that a no no?

    For instance I am located in Atlanta but I want to target south florida shoppers looking for a mercedes is that wrong? Different content but is still a product I offer.

    I can’t get those buyers in south florida organically and still stay highly visible in the aggressive Atlanta market.

    Please help…I am a business man/pastor and want to make money but never want to cross paths with someone and have them think I am not doing it properly.

  • Monicas-revenge

    Have been using geo targeted micro site for several years now Google shut me down 18 months ago and Yahoo caught on to our network of sites a couple of weeks ago. Now I our main site has been killed as well. Can tell you inbound inquires has come to a halt & phones have quit ringing

    Any ideas on a recovery plan/ rebuilding strategy that has worked for others in a post Micro site feeding frenzy era

  • Monicas-revenge

    As a follow up we are a legitimate company where geo site are appropriate
    My guess is the redundant content was our undoing

 

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