Why microsites are bad for SEO
What is a microsite?
A microsite is a website owned by a brand but located on a separate domain to the brand’s homepage, usually on a subdomain or separate URL.
When SEO is a consideration, it’s always better to host new content in a subfolder/subdirectory (e.g. domain.com/content/) than a subdomain (content.domain.com) or separate microsite (content.com).
N.B. When SEO isn’t a consideration ask yourself: should it be? Talk to your team/agency before you launch multiple domains.
Do microsites have any SEO benefits?
Microsites are sometimes created on an exact match domain (EMD).
EMDs are websites registered with a target keyword in the URL (e.g. johnlewisforeigncurrency.com) with the intention of ranking for that keyword.
Does that work? Yes.
Should it work? Only if you’re John Lewis a huge brand.
In 2012 (between the first two Penguin updates) Google released an update creatively named the EMD update with the intention of counteracting the boost gained from having the target keyword in the domain name. It used to be as straightforward as throwing up an exact match domain to target a traffic driving keyword – but now it, like any legit SEO tactic, requires budget and effort… And without a lot of effort it will only ever rank for the one exact keyword.
John Lewis is also discovering the limitations of an exact match domain and is migrating the website onto johnlewisfinance.com with only moderate success so far. If your microsite strategy does work, you may have to manage the risk of moving it onto a more suitable (macro) website.
Microsites can be used to manage a brand’s reputation in branded searches.
As an example, Wonga.com used to own the website openwonga.com, hosting content about the measures the company is taking to become more responsible. The positive for Wonga was an additional positive listing on a branded SERP.
However, listings for Wonga.com, openwonga.com, social profiles etc. vs. a lot of negative reviews and a fresh brand mention in every payday loans horror story (regardless of the actual lender) made this an expensive drop in the ocean. (And I’d argue that if your reputation is really that bad you’d probably want people viewing your products to be able to access this content in the same place).
Branded keywords are one thing… It’s sometimes mentioned that since Google has started to show fewer results from the same domain (very few sites now get multiple listings in the same SERP), microsites are a potential way to dominate a results page and own multiple listings. In principle, this is hard to do and it’s usually a year before a new website ranks for pretty much anything.
Sometimes, something prevents your primary website from ranking.
Extreme technical limitations could be a reason to launch a microsite. For example, if there’s no realistic way to publish content on your brand’s primary website, you might want to launch a separate content site on WordPress or similar.
Penalties probably aren’t a good reason to launch a new website anymore. With nearly two years between Penguin updates (before Penguin 4.0 rolled out in October 2016) Google had been preventing some big brands from ranking, regardless of measures taken, and a separate content site could have fed some much-needed traffic – now the algorithm is real-time recoveries can happen whenever the work is done. In 2017 there should be no penalty so horrifying that it’s cheaper to start again with a new domain than to do the right things for your website.
You don’t want visitors to know who’s behind the campaign.
Is it easier to build links to an unbranded microsite?
I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that suggests outreach gets a better response when bloggers and journalists are asked to link to an unbranded content site.
This is probably true for highly unpopular brands (Wonga.com) but not usually true for brands in unpopular industries (e.g. payday loans). We rarely experience any resistance when building links for betting sites such as Ladbrokes, forex traders like City Index our alternative credit companies like Provident Personal Credit.
We’re always upfront about the brands we’re working with (from the first email or immediately on a call) and experience suggests bloggers are more likely to work with better known brands – so you’d probably benefit from mentioning which brand owns your site in most cases anyway.
It does seem to be true that bloggers are more likely to ask for money when they’re asked to link to an iGaming site versus a retailer, for example – and back when paying for links was a thing, bloggers would frequently demand more money if asked to link to an iGaming site.
This should absolutely not factor into your thinking now – you should be turning down all requests to pay for backlinks and I’d recommend not working with a blogger at all if there’s a suggestion that they charge anyone in any industry to pay to place a link on their site.
The reasons why microsites are bad for SEO
- Duplicate content: You shouldn’t be using the same content on more than one website so you’ll have to create new content from scratch (although you can probably get away with videos). If your microsite is so similar to your homepage that slight rewording is enough, do you really need a separate domain at all. If your “microsite” is in fact a subfolder with a different look and feel (e.g. domain.com/content/ rather than content.com) you can utilise the same content and use canonical tags to prevent duplication – the microsite won’t rank but you’ll prevent any damage occurring to your primary domain.
- No links: It’s easy to forget how much effort went into getting the links your main site has (and how much easier it used to be). Your new website will have no links and won’t rank until you get some, which means cost for you. If you spent the same amount of time creating content for your primary website, which will benefit from the links you already have as well as other potential factors like domain age, you’ll start ranking much more quickly.
- Marketing it won’t benefit your main domain: Links you build to your microsite won’t benefit your brand’s homepage and products. Visitors to one site won’t easily be able to navigate to the other.
- Cross-domain tracking is a pain: Every visit that lands on your primary site from your microsite will be listed as a referral in Google Analytics and you won’t know how that visitor found you initially e.g. from search, social, or direct as a result of some campaign you’re running. You can hack something together to better track these referrals but that means spending (effort or money) on analytics.
- You’ll have to adopt things like HTTPS twice: Soon your websites will have to be HTTPS. All your websites. That means an extra certificate – and a potentially painful and undoubtedly expensive migration from HTTP to HTTPS. Imagine you were using both a primary and a secondary website in early 2015… And neither was mobile friendly – Google makes these changes from time to time and you’ll just have to do them twice.
- More things in your dev queue: I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have busy developers. One site is always going to be the poor cousin, or you’ll have to hire separate teams/agencies.
- Link too many microsites together and you start to look like a network: You lose trust and the links become worthless. Plus, penalties.
- It’s not as simple as redirecting the new site back in for the link authority: It can and does work but you run the risk of Google treating those redirects as soft 404s (Glenn Gabe’s analysis of this is all you need to read).
- Even with investment it will take a while to rank: 6 months seems a reasonable timeframe to start getting rankings for a brand new website with investment. If you’re not actively trying to build its authority (link acquisition/PR, content) you’ll be waiting a year or more.
- Even if you’re happy to rely on paid search to drive traffic, your account has no history: It will be more expensive to run PPC for your new site for a few months until you’ve built up your Quality Score (and maybe your primary account already has good Quality Score so you’d be paying less to market a subfolder).
- The poster boys for cool microsites haven’t got it right: When researching this topic, I found a lot of writers pointing to Coca Cola’s “Beverage Institute” as a really good example of this strategy. Well, they’ve redirected it and it’s vanished off the face of the earth.
A quick business case for dealing with your technical limitations
The most common reason I’ve encountered for launching a separate website is that it’s impossible to upload content to the current site.
Most marketers in most businesses will agree that there’s a need for content (if this doesn’t sound like your organisation: call us, we might be able to help).
Despite what you’ve read on Search Engine Land, good SEO isn’t cheap – and it’s likely going to take a year to get traffic – so try this:
Cost of adding functionality to current website – (cost of brand new website build + domain registration + hosting + SSL certificate + 12x monthly cost of SEO agency)
… And see if it comes out positive.