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 or minisites) 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.
Eric Enge, Stone Temple Consulting