Thought Microsites Were Dead? Think Again

The term “microsite” might conjure up images of a web long past, where creative agencies produced high-priced, animated presentations entirely in Flash—the design equivalent of a shock-and-awe strategy for online branding. As visually stunning as some of these works of art were, however, they often had questionable usability, had zero SEO value and were difficult to optimize with A/B or multivariate testing.

Luckily, that kind of microsite has gone the way of rickrolling.

But a new generation of microsites is emerging that not only leaves behind the sins of the past, but brings new techniques and opportunities for agile marketing and conversion optimization.

Meet the new microsite: 11 observations

The best way to get a sense of these new microsites is to look at one. Here is an example of a 5-page microsite deployed by a Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance provider:

Microsite example

I know, that’s hard to read, but I want you to note three immediate observations even from a distance:

  • The total number of pages in the microsite is small (in this case, five)
  • The content on these pages is meaty—more than a paragraph and a few bullets
  • There’s a strong, consistent visual theme binding these pages together

Now let’s zoom in on the “home” page, the landing page for the paid search campaign, to take a closer look (forgive the few pieces of campaign identifiable information I’ve redacted in the screenshot):

Microsite example, landing page

At this level, we can make more observations that epitomize this new kind of microsite:

  • The page is pure HTML, no Flash in sight (err, site)
  • As pure HTML, the page lends itself to SEO content best practices
  • As pure HTML, the page enables A/B and multivariate testing
  • The content is indeed meaty, telling its story with rich details
  • The other four pages are accessible via a simple tab navigation
  • Each tab focuses on a specific deep-dive subtopic (e.g., wellness)
  • There’s a clear call-to-action form on the right (replicated on all pages)
  • The graphic design of the page is compelling, but not overwhelming

Together, these 11 observations define the key features of this new breed of microsite. And while I can’t reveal the specific conversion lift metrics that were achieved with this example, I can say that since this campaign, the producer has eagerly pursued many additional microsites.

Making content deeper and easier to consume

For optimizing a visitor’s experience, there are two underlying forces that make these new microsites so effective.

The first, which I touched on in my column last month, are the principles of conversion content marketing. More than anything, visitors are searching for good content. They don’t want fluff, they don’t want teasers—they want the goods. And then, if they like what they see, they want a clear (but optional) next step to take.

However, there’s a paradox with such deep content. People want depth of information, but as Nicholas Carr and Gord Hotchkiss keep reminding us, they also want instant gratification—they don’t want to dig through a lot of raw material to find the gems that are relevant to them. One big page of content, such as a long blog post or product page, isn’t as helpful as a collection of organized subtopics that lets the user quickly dial in on what is most important to them.

Microsites provide this lightweight structure by offering a few simple, interrelated navigation choices—the tab metaphor is common and intuitive—without getting bogged down with the baggage of your main website’s navigation or being constrained by its existing page layouts. By breaking your topic into several subtopics, you can simultaneously deliver deeper content while making it easier for people to consume.

Enabling transparent audience segmentation

The second force, closely related, is audience segmentation. I’m a big proponent of using multi-step landing pages (also known as “conversion paths”) to enable visitors to self-select the content that’s most relevant to them—one or two quick choices on the landing page, followed up with a highly targeted presentation. Hundreds of experiments have shown that these conversion paths often convert much higher than regular landing pages because the choices give visitors a strong “information scent,” leading to a more personalized experience.

However, depending on the circumstances—such as campaigns designed for SEO or social media marketing—that “guided flow” architecture may not be best. The microsite design pattern offers an alternative way of organizing choices, while still allowing people to deep-link into a particular subtopic, regardless of the page they first link into, such as this example from Iron Mountain:

Iron Mountain microsite example

As with conversion paths, these segmented microsites deliver two key benefits:

  • Visitors can quickly navigate to the content most relevant to their search
  • Marketers can use the data from those choices to naturally segment their audience

Such segmentation is transparent to users and accurately reflects the choices they make in their own self-interest. The resulting data—learning which traffic sources bring you which audience segments and how well you perform in converting each of them—is pure analytical marketing gold.

Microsites: Agile and economical?

The old generation of microsites were expensive and time-consuming to build. And once they were built, no one wanted to engage in much iterative refinement. The new generation of microsites, however, have just the opposite dynamic.

As pure HTML, they’re only a little more work to construct than stand-alone landing pages. And, like professional landing page programs, you can build them around a set of reusable templates that let you leverage the design assets of one microsite concept across a number of campaigns.

Because such microsites, like landing pages, live outside the formal framework of your main web site, they can often be deployed quickly and without death-by-committee—supporting agile marketing practices. You can easily use your favorite A/B or multivariate testing tool to experiment with different variations of the content, presentation and conversion offer. You can even use A/B testing to compare the performance of such a microsite against an alternative single-page landing page.

Simply put, this new generation of microsites gives conversion optimization professionals a whole new category of strategies and tactics to employ—while leveraging the best practices and tools you already know.

Isn’t reincarnation a wonderful thing?

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

Related Topics: Channel: Analytics | Search & Conversion


About The Author: is the president and CTO of ion interactive, a leading provider of landing page management and conversion optimization software. He also writes a blog on marketing technology, Chief Marketing Technologist. Follow him on twitter via @chiefmartec.

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  • naja2183

    Hm- really interesting, thanks Scott! I have launched Microsites for SEO reasons before, and this is a great way of explaining the benefit of Microsites for Paid Search segmentation, as well.

  • Shari Thurow

    Hi Scott-

    Microsites must be clearly defined. A microsite for search engine advertising is perfectly understandable and acceptable. But a microsite for SEO reasons? Most microsites for SEO, I believe, are mostly search engine spam due to the low quality of site navigation, content…among other things.

    There is a time and place for SEO microsites.

  • mdmcginn

    Tell me again the advantages of putting content “outside the formal framework of your main web site”? That seems to me an admission that visitors shouldn’t look to your main website for your best content. Can’t site owners be persuaded any other way to adopt “agile marketing practices” which in this context means “useful content strategy”? I’ve seen death-by-committee kill landing pages more effectively precisely because they aren’t part of the site’s formal framework. If I had something important to say, I would use my SEO powers on a section that’s off the corporate radar.

  • Scott Brinker

    Thanks for the comments!

    Shari — I can fully appreciate the concern around any technique that has been abused by spammers. But if we let that dissuade us entirely, we would have all abandoned email long ago. The difference between good marketing and spam, in both cases, is something of valuable being delivered to the user (in their eyes!).

    That being said, I’m not an SEO expert, so I won’t claim that microsites built exclusively for SEO are the best possible SEO strategy. However, I have seen microsites for PPC campaigns be incredibly successful. And, since in this search/social age, nothing stays in a silo for long, if you’re going to have a PPC microsite, you might as well have it follow best SEO and SMO practices as well.

    mdmcginn — The reason why landing pages tend to do better outside the framework of the main web site is that a web site structure typically assumes a “general context.” It didn’t matter how the user arrived there, everyone experiences the same, consistent information architecture (IA). That’s a plus when you want to use a web site as a central point of reference.

    But when people are responding to very specific ads, on very specific keywords, you know MUCH MORE about their context — and can therefore tailor the presentation to those circumstances. In doing so, you shouldn’t have to worry about where that context fits in your site’s master IA. It’s in an orbit just outside of the site.

    People do this because, generally speaking, that approach converts much better. And often there is an easy way to link people back into the core web site, once they’ve had the benefit of that context-specific interaction.


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