Microsites. A Bad Idea Most of the Time.

This morning, TechFlash noted that Drugstore.com is expanding its microsite strategy around product categories. The growing list now includes:

  • deluxesalonsupply.com
  • beauty.com
  • visiondirect.com
  • sexualwellbeing.com
  • athisbest.com
  • thenaturalstore.com
  • allergysuperstore.com

Possibly you can already tell based on my headline that I think this is not the awesomest strategy ever. I could call it short-sighted, misguided, any number of other prefixed words, but perhaps I’ll just tell you why microsites are often not the best strategy to pursue. Before I get to that though, I want to point out that I find microsites a bad idea most of the time. Sometimes they are a great idea. Although the more of them you have, the less likely this is the case.

But, you protest! The TechFlash article said that  beauty.com helped drugstore.com post a 20%  revenue for Q1 2010. Sounds awesome. Microsites rule! Except that beauty.com is the one domain from the list that isn’t actually a microsite. It’s simply a vanity domain that redirects to the beauty category of drugstore.com.  So certainly, by focusing resources and awareness on that category, they’ve likely managed to increase sales, but that increase has nothing to do with microsites.

So what’s wrong with microsites? Let’s tally up the ways.

You lose brand identity and audience engagement

You spend significant corporate energy on positive brand perception and awareness. And then you start over completely from scratch with an entirely new brand. Woo? If you are reaching an entirely different audience and your current brand would be confusing, then you may in fact want to build out a new brand, but that case, you probably won’t be launching a microsite, you’ll launch a full site. In most cases, microsites are subsets of or promotions for the main site, with exactly the same audience. Do you really want to work at building up multiple brand identities? And do you really not want to benefit from the brand building in one category for another related category? (This comes especially important with ecommerce sites, such as those drugstore.com operates. Even today, we don’t want to hand over our credit card information to just any site.)

Brand awareness has a search impact as well. As I note in the searcher behavior chapter of my book, searchers quickly evaluate the search results page to determine which result to click on. Many things go into that evaluation, but certainly brand recognition helps in evaluating credibility and perceived value.

You lose the ability to leverage your audience

Let’s say you launch an awesome site with a fantastic user experience, great products, and unrivaled customer support. For instance, let’s say you’re Zappos. Someone writes up a positive article about you in say, the NY Times. Readers start clicking over to your site. They see you sell running shoes. They just read about how great you are, so they feel confident about purchasing some products from your site. But maybe those same readers also need some clothes to go running in. If you had a separate runningclothes.com microsite, you’ve just missed a great opportunity to reach a targeted and motivated audience.

You confuse people and search engines

Oh, I won’t have that whole NY Times reader problem, you say. I’ll just keep a complete copy of my runningclothes.com content on my main site too! That way, I can reach the audience for my main site as well as get all the additional audience potential of the microsite. Oh really? First, that’s just confusing. If someone becomes accustomed to shopping for athletic clothes on your main site and then clicking over for shoes, but then one day they end up on runningclothes.com and everything looks the same… and yet the shoes are gone — that’s just not the experience you want to give users.

But the problem really comes in when you add search engines to the mix. Which version of the pages do you want them to index — the version on your main site or version on your microsite? Likely you’re going to say the microsite. (Especially if you’ve built the microsite because you think keyword-rich domain names have great search potential — read on for more on that, by the way.) But the search engine is likely to index the version on your main site because that site has been around longer, has more links, and has more overall credibility with the search engines. No problem, you say. You’ll just block those pages with robots.txt. Well, OK. You can do that. But then you lose all search engine value from any of the external links those pages may accumulate. You also lose the search value of the internal link structure. That’s not awesome.

My guess is that drugstore.com has Zyrtec on both its main site and its allergysuperstore.com site. Along with all the user reviews, product details, and directions. Drugstore.com ranks #37 for [zyrtec]. allergysuperstore.com doesn’t rank at all.

You may have to spend substantial additional resources

The microsites run by drugstore.com all use the same template and content management system. So it seems like low  engineering overhead to maintain them all. But wait. As you build out the content of both sites, you have to decide which content to put where. And decide how to spend marketing, PR, and advertising resources. When you issue a press release, which site do you talk up? All of them? What if you have 20? And you likely are doing social media. Do you now maintain 20 Facebook pages and 20 Twitter accounts? I’m tired just thinking about it.

And if you’ve built the microsite specifically for an advertising campaign, what happens when the campaign is over? Do you maintain the site? Abandon it? Take it down? This question gets more complicated if the microsite included a social networking element. You’ve gotten your audience engaged, now what do you do with them?

During the 2009 Super Bowl, Jack-in-the-Box aired a commercial that showed Jack getting hit by a bus. They launched the microsite hangintherejack.com as part of the campaign. I’m not sure what happened with the lifecycle of the site, but that domain now redirects to jackinthebox.com, so whatever assets they built up there (both in terms of content and audience) have just been thrown away. (They did better with the Twitter account launched as part of the campaign. That wasn’t campaign-specific and it still being used by “Jack”.)

You cobble your search acquisition efforts

A big part of ranking well in search engines continues to be the strength of the external links to the site. If you maintain multiple sites, then you are diluting that external link value. If five people link to your main site and five people link to your microsite, each site is competing for rankings against the rest of the web with those five links. Instead, you could have one site competing with ten links. Anything that you do for offsite search engine optimization, you have to repeat for each site.

It can be difficult to match promotions to search visibility

One common case of microsites is when a company launches a new promotion. It seems to make perfect sense to launch a microsite as part of that promotion. You can tie branding to the promo and it can be a lot easier to outsource the development of the site to the agency that is managing the promotion creative than to try to coordinate in-house resources and add a section about the promotion to the main company website.

The trouble comes in when that promotion sparks search interest (which it undoubtedly will). I’ve observed this with the Super Bowl commercials in both 2009 and 2010. In 2009, several sites, including Hyundai and Sobe advertised taglines that had corresponding microsites, but those domains redirected to the main domain. Advertisers expected that viewers would type the URL into a browser address bar, but instead, many people typed the tagline or domain into a search box. Since the domain didn’t actually exist, the advertiser didn’t show up in search results. You can see this, for instance, with Hyundai’s Edit Your Own campaign.

Hyundai Super Bowl Interest

Huydai Edit Your Own Search Results

Another problem with launching a microsite at the same time as an ad campaign (even if you don’t redirect the URL) is that you don’t want to launch the site until the ad goes live, but you want the site to be visible in search results as soon as the ad goes live. And unfortunately, you can’t have both. The hangintherejack.com site noted above experienced this issue. It wasn’t indexed in Google until six hours after the commercial aired (and the site launched). For a site to be crawled, indexed, and ranking within six hours of launch seems pretty quick. Unless you’ve just spent millions on a Super Bowl commercial that’s caused the audience to search for the site in Google. You can, of course, mitigate this problem by buying paid search ads. But this blog post isn’t about how to work around microsite issues. It’s about why microsites can be problematic.

But, I can hear you asking. Wouldn’t an advertiser always have this problem, even if they just launched promotion-related content on their main site? Well, yes and no. At the very least, the domain is already known and being actively crawled by the search engines, so you increase your chances of a quick crawl of the new content, particularly if you link it from your home page as soon as it goes live. You can also launch the pages early (without all of the promotion-related content) and ensure the pages include the words that correspond to the queries the promotion will likely trigger, then swap out the content when the ad goes live.

For ad campaign-related web content, you always have to think through the implementation to ensure you leverage search interest, but your options are more limited when you’re dealing with a microsite.

You don’t get the search engine value you think you get

This is the crux of the issue in the case illustrated by drugstore.com. They aren’t launching microsites because they are working with an ad agency on creative for a campaign and it’s too difficult to get internal engineers to add content to their website. And they aren’t building a completely difference business for an entirely new audience. They’re launching entire business verticals for the same audience as their primary site on keyword-rich domains. Why? It can’t be for the type-in traffic.  Even those who specialize in the domain business will tell you that type in traffic is on a serious decline. We can see this with the Dockers commercial from the 2010 Super Bowl. A URL was the number two spiking query on Google that day.

Dockers Super Bowl Interest

People use search engines as primary navigation for the web even when they already know the web address.

Generally, when I work with companies who want to use a bunch of keyword-rich domains, it’s because they think there’s some inherent search engine value in the domains themselves. This assumes that the brilliant PhDs at Google think to themselves: “Huh. This domain is cheaponlinebooks.com. It totally must be the most relevant result for [cheap online books] queries. After all, the words are right in the domain name!” However, as it turns out, this has been a technique used by spammers since the days of stone tablets and chisels. Or, OK. Since at least 1995. The search engines are onto it. (Well, maybe not Bing quite yet.)

There is so much super valuable content on domains that aren’t keyword rich and there is so much spammy, crappy content on keyword-rich domains that Google just doesn’t find it useful as a relevance signal.

Keywords can indirectly help when they’re in the URL because you’ll get anchor text credit for any URL-only links. But that really has nothing to do with the domain, so why not just use keyword-rich URLs on your main domain and get those benefits without incurring all of the drawbacks of microsites?

People also sometimes think operating multiple domains will help search engine rankings in other ways, such as that you can link to yourself for instant PageRank credit! Or that you can dominate the search results with all those domains. I hate to be the one to break the news, but search engines are on to those things too. Over time, search engines generally can figure out when sites are part of an owned network and then treat them accordingly (which is similar to how they would treat the content if it were all part of one site). And if you now want to ask how do they know so you can figure out how to hide it, then you’re getting dangerously close to thinking about search engine manipulation. Maybe you should read this and then come back.

Certainly, you’ll find many out there who swear up and down that having keywords in the domain makes a big difference. I think mostly this isn’t the case. That any examples of keyword-rich domain names ranking well are also a case of the content on those domains actually being the most relevant result for a set of queries. Even if it did work, it would presumably only work for exact match, so you’d need a lot of domains to make up to set of queries you really want to rank for. That sounds exhausting. I also think that this is the kind of ranking signal that’s likely being tweaked all the time, and even if it works for a time, it’s a poor foundation for a long term business strategy.

But just as importantly, once you start focusing one building your business based on perceived signals in the search engine algorithms, you’ve lost sight of why you’re building the business in the first place and of your customers and while this may seem like a minor diversion, it may take you down a completely different path than the one that’s based on building substantial user value.

Business Goals

Suddenly you’ve got a set of spam tactics rather than a business model.

So do keyword-rich domains have any value? Maybe. If you are starting a brand new site and can pick any domain name you want, in some cases it may make sense to go with a keyword-rich one. It will be memorable, easy to type, and will encourage useful anchor text. It might also encourage click through for URL-only links as it may be more obvious what the site is about. And if you have or can acquire a bunch of keyword-rich domains related to your industry, you may as well redirect them to your main site to capture any type-in traffic they happen to get (although don’t expect any SEO benefit from this).

But launching a whole bunch of keyword-rich microsites related to your industry in hopes that you’ll get all those microsites ranking separately for variations of query? Probably not the awesomest idea ever.

Updated 10/9/11: I’m not sure when this change happened, but most of these domains are now redirecting into a section of drugstore.com.


68 thoughts on “Microsites. A Bad Idea Most of the Time.

  • Larry Hosken

    If I hired a bunch of people to create my site, what am I supposed to have them do after they create it? All they know how to do is create sites! I could try putting them in charge of customer support, but they’d try to solve that problem by creating a new site. If my site’s customer support isn’t even on my site, I’ve got real problems. So… I’ll put my site creators in charge of creating a new site for running shoes. Sure, it won’t help sales much. But it will keep those people out of trouble for a few months and justify my headcount.

  • Anthony Piwarun

    Great post, Vanessa. The agency I work for uses microsites all the time and I have been a big proponent myself until recently. We’ve begun shifting our focus to subdirectories for category specific and subdomains for separate verticals.

  • Tyler Edmondson

    I think the point is missed here that if one has a successful site adding various micro sites will not only add sales to it will most likely increase the larger sites sales. SEO wise it will increase linked in traffic. Bad idea from a consumer looking at it but most will never know!

    • Vanessa

      I didn’t miss that point, I just don’t agree with it. From an SEO perspective, you don’t get the long term benefits from interlinking that you would from external links from non-owned sites and you dilute your SEO efforts, so you could end up with fewer sales, not more. And if you’re doing things that are bad for consumers, you aren’t going to end up in a great place long term.

  • Renaud JOLY

    In my opinion microsites are today replaced by Social Media Optimisation. SMO offers many advantages :
    – quick open and configuration
    – linking RSS possibilities
    – pictures, video hosting, tagging indexing
    – it expands content keywords targeting
    – it covers the brand in Search Engine and flood negative content
    As a result we don’t optimise one site but several supports and links
    Renaud JOLY – SEO Manager (Lille – France)

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  • Perri Collins

    I totally agree with you. 🙂 On this one topic.

  • Carter Cole

    ditto on what Vanessa said… the interlinking only helps if the microsites have trust themselves so you will need ips on different c-blocks, purchased with separate credit cards and different addresses while trying to make people visit/like them and the power you gain still isn’t as much as if they had just linked directly to one domain in the first place

    not all links are created equal and google knows if its a good valuable one or if you just registered 50 domain names and added links to all of them and they have no links/visits themselves

  • Kevin Bossons

    Awesome article. Though you mentioned “Sometimes they are a great idea” and didn’t really talk about any positive scenarios. Care to talk about when microsites are a good idea?

    • Vanessa

      That will have to be another article. 🙂

  • trustfundbaby

    Would it be a better idea to run a microsite under a subdomain (if you absolutely had to have a microsite?).

    For example, lets say I sell soccer gear, instead of making a brand new domain to highlight the launch of the new Nike Mercurial Vapors, would it be okay to set up the site at


    • Vanessa

      Yes, absolutely. Subdomains are a completely different situation than microsites. I should do another article on the various other options available and the pros and cons.

  • Leon Fangnigbe

    If keyword-rich domains is the only reason that the owner has to create the microsite, then something is missing. I agree with you that you should avoid microsites unless you are targeting new type of customer or vertical businesses.
    Leon Fangnigbe — http://www.MLFSolutions.com | http://www.TaxMamba.com

  • Jeff Collins

    Hmmm. Have to disagree about the keywords in the domain not helping, especially if you have an “exact match” domain name. We’ve launched many sites with exact match domain names and the sites typically rank in the top 3 positions within 2 weeks of launching. This is usually accomplished with only 1 or 2 links pointing to the site.

    We’ve also found micro sites to convert 15-20% higher than the large sites. We attribute this higher conversion rate to being focused on exactly what the user is looking for.

    • Vanessa

      Jeff – I think in part, it depends on the kind of business you’re building. I work a lot of startups who’ve received VC funding and need to build a long term strategy that includes brand building, search acquisition, and stability. A strategy of a bunch of exact match domains doesn’t align with those goals. I think what you’re describing also depends on the competition for the query. And in many cases, the focused topic leading to higher conversions could be achieved with subdomains, with the added benefit of building a brand that captures those customers for greater lifetime value.

  • trustfundbaby

    Ah … awesome!
    Thanks for the quick response. Great article btw.

  • Christophe de la Fabrique du Multimédia

    I understand your point of view but I successfully build microsites to support mains websites in specials cases. If my primary domain is boring and sell boring stuffs, very few links will come naturally even if my website is great. So I build microsites related to my main activity that will attract links (UGC, pictures exchanges, buzzy news). Microsites link out to primary domain. Yes it’s more work but now I attract links I won’t obtain otherwise.

    • Vanessa

      Christophe – In most cases, I bet you’d get the same results with subdomains, as well as the additional benefits of consolidated external links and an easier time of converting visitors to your main site goal.

  • NIck

    One of the best seo articles I’ve read in a long time.

    With regard to keyword rich domains, I’m not sure if the only advantage is domain name in anchor text; in the recent Google SERP updates I saw sites that had been #1 for over a year drop to place 4 or 5, and keyword rich domains take the top slots. Admittedly this may have been just ‘one of those Google things’, but it seemed a bit too coincidental.

    Excellent post and I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on this blog in the future.

  • Thomas

    Hi Vanessa,

    I can understand where you are coming from with Microsites being a negative thing in regards to SEO.

    But I do agree with Kevin Bossons. It was a bit too negative for my liking considering some people that read these blogs think they are gospel especially if its been sphunn (congratz by the way). Would have been nice to at least see one example of something positive.

    I have had some very good success with Microsites promoted via PPC, email marketing and white paper marketing within certain industries (granted mainly B2B).

    • Vanessa

      Thomas – Yes, I’m working on another article about the times when a microsite is a good idea, as well as options that may work better than microsites in other situations. But the article was already too long as it was!

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  • mark rushworth

    i use micro sites and other externally hosted domains to great effect, im now dominating a page 1 listing and the customers have nowhere else to turn… we’ve literally got almost 100% of the organic market sewn up 🙂

    • Vanessa

      Mark – I hear you, but see the sections of my post on Google eventually realizing those are owned sites and treating them accordingly, which makes that not a great long term strategy for a business. And the sections of building long term audience engagement vs. a business that focuses on search engine algorithms.

  • Brent D. Payne

    Chicago Tribune (not Tribune Company) is doing this a lot. They have launched chicagobreakingnews.com, chicagobreakingsports.com, chicagobreakingbusiness.com, etc. etc. etc.

    I was dead against it for all the reasons in your post. However, it worked out really well for them.

    See screenshot of rankings from G’WMT here:

    I about laid on the sword when they suggested their ‘crazy’ idea to me. Now, I am eating crow.

    Granted, ChicagoTribune.com links SIGNIFICANTLY to ChicagoBreakingNews.com from their homepage. We break news first to Chicago Breaking News, etc.

    My argument to Chicago Tribune is that, while they are doing well, they could be doing better if it were located at chicagobreakingnews.chicagotribune.com or chicagotribune.com/breakingnews.

    Your thoughts?

    • Vanessa

      Brent – I’m going to do a longer post that will encompass more of my thoughts on this. Stay tuned.

  • Cathy Reisenwitz

    Using subdomains instead of subdirectories will hurt your SEO like using microsites instead of subdirectories. Google sees a subdomain as a separate site, so any inbound links you get to your subdomain won’t help your main site. In addition, those indexed pages in the subdomain won’t benefit your main site. So are subdomains a completely different situation than microsites? Maybe from a user perspective, but not when it comes to search.

  • Michael Beaton

    Your blog post was a bit harsh. Microsites, when employed correctly, gets people engaged in a buying process earlier, they are more focused on the subject in question, and doesn’t add as much admin/overhead time as when may think. For example, jogginstroller.com is a perfect demonstration of how a microsite, focused on a niche product, can generate traffic and sales. When people know what they want, a focused microsite is great! It works.

    • Vanessa

      Michael – I clearly don’t agree as evidenced by this post. 🙂 I honestly think that you get the same benefits as well as additional ones when you focus that same energy and resources and build out a section of a single site, vs. building out a bunch of different ones. Of course, this is in the case where the business and audience are the same. My next post will be on when I think microsites are valuable and what I think generally works better than microsites for the cases you describe.

  • Brian McDonald

    Great post tackling a difficult stand on microsites. I agree with you in that microsites can cause confusion among customers, users, search engines and even internal stakeholders. I’ve also been challenged in how to create sustainable social media presence for the microsites to reap some marketing benefit.

  • Jesper Åström

    Hey Vanessa,

    Clearly the title of this post is wrong. It should have been something like “Bad Microsites. A Bad Idea All of the Time.”. The thing is, you seem to assume that the person building the micro site does not have a clue what they are doing. An assumption like that naturally leads to a bad result.

    Your claim that micro sites are bad for branding purposes is flat out wrong. Have a look at Nike and how they have implemented micro sites to engage different audiences. If you truly want to reach out with your brand then you have to engage with people where they are and then build it from there.

    As for SEO, it is better to own all of the results on a profitable SERP than it is to just own one. Dup. content can be easily avoided if you just know what and why you are doing what you are doing. There might be some cannibalism with regard to links, but if you cross link your web domains through a mixture of nofollows and relevant in-content clean links, you will build all domains through co-citation. By making purpose determined micro sites you will also actually make it more obvious for Google/Bing/Yahoo to correctly index your website which will thus also reward you.

    I agree with your analysis, if it would have been about dangers with not knowing what you’re doing in terms of using micro sites. I don’t agree with you if you mean that this is a general rule. I have employed micro sites successfully for the past 5 years and it still works like a charm. Ask me any time if you need help to adjust your strategy.

    All the best,

    • Vanessa

      Jesper – we’ll have to agree to agree. I don’t *always* think microsites are a bad idea, but using a microsite strategy to try to own the SERPs is against the spirit of Google’s guidelines and I never recommend those kinds of strategies. I also think Nike could quite possibly have been even more successful with a single domain strategy.

  • Directory Sieve

    Am not a fan of micro niche sites, not that it does not works out, no, it does. But i just don’t like to build a site that has limits and beyond that limit, it just can’t grow. It will become stagnant finally. Also, as you mentioned, going for quick rankings is a temporary achievement and is a poor business model. Well, a 3 keyword domain is very unlikely to have any brand value.

    Though, i would like to press on the fact that it does works out, and would like to disagree with you in this opinion. You gave the example of running shoes, but perhaps a niche marketer will not think in that way, lets say we have a runningshoes.com and we want a new mini site on clothes, then it will be runningclothes.com and it will get a nofollow link from the bottom of the shoes site so that we retain our customers. I have done that in the past, and it is a good way to spread brand value to other micro sites running under our banner. When we say, buy running clothes from our sister site, our customers trust that site just like they trust our main site.

    The problem of micro sites is that it requires money and time. You already mentioned that, and i agree. It is very hard to run, promote, update, add content etc. and to top it all, when they start getting hacked, getting de-indexed from search engines, people starts to copy content and you start to fight them back, i mean all in all if you are small, you don’t have funds, don’t go for 20 mini sites, most of the time you will get frustration and nothing more.

    But all this was already a problem when i started creating micro sites and i fought my way through, proved it all wrong, but lately the search engines has put too much value in authority and brand value sites that a micro niche site is beaten with a good article posted on ezine articles or other strong website. The latest long tail update, “google mayday update” is a major reason why creating micro niche sites with 3 keywords on the domain and chasing long tail keywords all the way, is not a good idea at all.

  • Adam

    I think its a little short sighted to make such a sweeping statement.
    I can safely say that I run small micro niche sites and they work well if you are an affiliate or are looking at very niche markets. Granted their not going to make you rich, but as part of a targeted strategy they work well. Add value to them and clear calls to action and you should be able to make sales of your service or products.

    • Vanessa

      Adam – Yep, I’m mostly talking about a company building a business/brand that’s thinking of building microsites for that same business/audience.

  • kev

    I am with Jesper on this one.. I have 10 micro sites all pointing at my main site , I have a live database in the backend of the main site telling me exactly where each and every conversion came from, and guess what , 95% of all new conversions come from my micro sites. No probs with dup content , no problems with stagnation and all micro sites updated daily with fresh content.

  • Jonathan

    The company I’m working for has a micro-site strategy that I would qualify as a hybrid blog/product placement, as information given on these pages are uniquely placed on the company’s template, which is the same as the main site. I’m currently looking up info to see if this could weild good results. I see myself updating or adding relevent product specific info maybe every 3 months on these pages as it’s a slow moving industry anyways.

    What do you say of this?

  • Chris Guthrie

    I disagree with the fight against microsites. I can see how it can split your audience etc. like you outlined above, but if I’m a shopper at drugstore.com I’m going there to order pills.

    I’m not going there to buy salon products. By them launching a site that sells salon products as well it allows them to move into a new market they weren’t previously targeting.

    When I think of Drugstore.com I don’t think of Amazon.com where I can find any product I want to buy. I think of a more specialized site. If this is the general consensus about your business then why wouldn’t you start something new where you have no brand recognition anyway?

  • Nevil Darukhanawala

    In many cases micro sites do not work, but there are cases where micro sites may be the best strategy. So it’s case-to-case dependent, like most things in SEO. Main point to note is that if you do decide to implement a strategy that involves micro sites, keep in mind that each site will need a lot of separate effort, patience and money, and this could result in a diluted marketing strategy.

  • Alex Tran


    Thanks for sharing your argument regarding microsites. In general, I agree with you that microsites dilute a brand with the same audience. However, if a business wants to do brand extension, microsites can be a good strategy.

    For example, if a conservative running shoe company like N*w B*l wanted to go after the hip-hop crowd, they would be hard-pressed to lure visitors to their main site. Hardcore hip-hoppers would see the URL and simply not click.

    However, if N*w B*l were to run an advertising campaign and direct their viewers to a microsite like nocreaseshoes.com, they stand a better chance of a click-through.

    On the microsite, N*w B*l would engage their visitors with a targeted article. Then the microsite can lead them to the flag ship site.

    Food for thought…

  • Adam B

    First off I’d like to thank you again for taking time to answer many of my questions during the Google IO conference, particularly pagination and canonical tags.

    Regrettably the company which I develop for went down the microsite road (and wasted alot our time). We spent many man hours (which equals money) in both developing and testing the new system, just to realize that our bread ‘n butter is primary brand, not these hokey sites. This article really hits on and spells out why our venture wasn’t successful and what we can learn from it, thanks.

  • nathan

    Interesting post Vanessa – thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I would be interested to know if / how your views transpose onto the business model of very large niche players like Hayneedle or CSN Stores. With revenues of $200mill + their strategy must have merit.

    Many of the sites of the above mentioned overlap substantially.

    We have tested both methods on some of our sites. To be honest the jury is still out. The overhead of running multiple niche sites is large even if they are on a single unified platform. BUT and this is a large BUT like one of your comment posts above stated conversion rates on niche sites (based on our testing) is significantly better than a more generalised site. (Note: our sites are all ecommerce).

    i will look forward to your further thoughts / views and posts

    thanks again for sharing.

  • Hugh

    As an amateur who plays around with websites i have to say that i have never had any success with micro sites. How do you keep them updated because they have such a narrow focus? Constantly building backlinks to gain or keep Googles attention makes me uncomfortable because its simply gaming the serps to achieve that page one position. Interesting diversity of opinion so far, looking forward to reading Vanessa’s next article on micro sites.

  • jordan retro

    This is the crux of the issue in the case illustrated by drugstore.com. They aren’t launching microsites because they are working with an ad agency on creative for a campaign and it’s too difficult to get internal engineers to add content to their website.

  • William Suarez

    I have been watching hours of video on SEO for months and I like your thoughts best. Everyone has an opinion but yours are tried and true. I notice this when watching your videos. It is very easy for you to give out your information. Others have to sell it to you. I wonder if you have any websites you could recomend for over all help with SEO. Such as web Pro News and Google Webmasters. Thanks for the endless hours saved and keep up the good work! William

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  • Ramenos

    I agree with this post.

    Create some microsites was a good strategy in…2003/2004 to increase Search Engines Visibily. However, yes, we can loose Brand Popularity.

    But sometimes, create 1 microsites about one specific field could be a good idea if it is a great add value to your main website. 🙂

  • Nic Lucas

    I always like coming in late on a post – because then I get the post, the comments and the author replies – which is way more valuable than the original post.

    I wonder if this all depends on the market you’re in. I know that was mentioned above already. I do quite a bit of SEO for local business – and I find that a well optimized blog post can rank for a specific search term – without having to set up a micro-site.

    What are your thoughts on third party micro-sites – like squidoo lenses for example. These can rank as well as the main domain on the SERP and are non-owned by the webmaster.

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  • Arizal

    As an inhouse SEO for a big publisher I prefer big and well branded sites much over small sites: you can enhance traffic on the existing site by adding a new section and get the content in the SERPs at some decent places (provided the journalists can use at least one or two times the relevant keyword for an article – pretty tough for a print writer!). Additional backlinks are not really required as we got enough of those. So, the whole thing is less work for me, pageviews are on the rise and everybody is happy.

    Really? I missed some point in the whole discussion: informational sites and usability. Creating yet another section in a large site will result in things like overloaded menus, related article plugins, pretty logic but hard to navigate directory structures or a bunch of more or less orphaned subdomains/subdirectories (does anybody think about.com is a joy to browse?)…

    When it comes to my private projects, I prefer ‘microsites’ (20 – 50 pages of unique content) in informational niches. One for every topic I like (a food, an artist, a country etc). There are so many SERPs which still can benefit from an informational niche site where every information regarding the topic is just one click away, the template gives a proper look and feel. CTRs seem good, bounce rates are low, pages per visit tend to be good (for pure SE traffic)… people list the tweets of each site… gives me the impression like several people really like those sites. I can grow such a site to something bigger if required.

    Maybe not the best idea for a real business, but free information which pays the rent for it’s creation.

  • Alish


    I came to know about your website via the video I watched on Matt Cutts Blog about the latest Site Review Session.

    Well I have read this article and read all the comments. Based on my research Micro Sites with keyword rich domain names does help in a way.

    However I agree to the fact that if it’s been used solely for promoting main site via different domains, that is not a good idea.

    I have a question in regards to Micro Sites but not in terms of different products having different websites. But Having the same product/service for a particular targeted Region.

    Like if I have a Web Design Company. Now I planned to expand to 10 different cities and I bought good keyword rich domain names. And If I had setup all the websites using the SAME Design to build brand identify but with the fact that each website having a 100% unique content.

    Like for Example I have a website http://www.webdesignmiami123.com targeting the Miami Region.

    So do you think targeting different regions/cities and using microsites which has same brand, same design but different content is a problem at all?

    Again see we are not trying to use microsite for different services we offer, but for different regions we serve. So what is your view on that?

    I’ll look forward for your response here.


  • Brighton SEO

    Microsites are a waste of time, some people even view it as ‘blackhat’.

    By the way Vanessa, I ordered your book 🙂

  • Ferodynamics

    Most people are not one-dimensional. Limiting yourself to one domain is really short-sighted, in my opinion. I’ll give you a real-life example.

    I’m an abstract painter. I have a BFA. Back in 2004 I came up with two website ideas, two domains. One about collecting art and another about art viewing and art reviewing. One was a wiki, the other was a blog.

    One thing artists know, it’s process of elimination. If you have only one domain, you boxed yourself in. You’re trapped. The best artists make 20 compositions or 20 models very quickly and choose the best one. There’s a reason why designers and artists do this–it works! I might show 10 drawings to 1000 people and find out the orange drawing sells the best–it’s the same with domains. Anyway, the art collecting site didn’t pull any traffic. But the other site did something I wasn’t expecting, it morphed into yet another idea with yet another domain.

    I’m also a programmer for over 20 years. So I wasn’t just blogging about art. I was also blogging about web tracking, advertising, click fraud, all kinds of subjects. So I realized I needed more domains to cover my different interests.

    Especially because Google assumes domains are one-dimensional. If Google decides your website is about ice cream, that’s it–you’re stuck with ice cream searches. It’s either-or with Google. If you write about quantum physics (and you’re the expert on quantum physics) it doesn’t matter, you’re stuck with ice cream searches from that point forward. I learned (painful lesson) it was futile to try to change Google’s mind. It’s much easier to make a new domain, rather than fight Google’s classification algorithm.

    If you get searches for lemons, go make some lemonade, but don’t let Google make you a lemon head for life. You are more than a lemon head! You are a multi-faceted, knowledgeable, interesting person! So go register some more domains.

    As far as maintaining multiple domains, there are several ways to do it. That’s another comment for another day. But check out ScribeFire. If I press F8 right now I can post to any of 9 blogs. If I have an idea about art I can post to my art blog. If I have an idea about freelancing I can post to my freelancer blog, etc.

    Obviously I’m going to post something about WordPress to my WordPress blog, not to my freelancing blog. Two different ideas, two different domains. In fact, WordPress now has this functionality included in version 3.0.

    I keep a journal of domains I want to register. I could be watching a video, or talking to a friend, in the tub, at the pool, and I get ideas. Those ideas deserve unique domain names. I have 100-200 domain ideas on various pieces of paper. Now and then I go through that list and pick out a domain I want to register. It’s $10, no big deal. If that website makes at least $1 per month then I come out ahead.

    Now I have a step by step process to get these domains up and running without much trouble. Over the years I have this down to about 10 steps.

    30 years from now that one idea at the pool could be worth $1000 per month. God willing, I’m still blogging and/or making websites that far into the future. By then I have lots more content, even if I’m only posting once per month, that’s 360 posts over 30 years. Not only that, I just improved my odds of finding a winning idea. And if one idea fails, if the trend changes, now I have more options.

  • jim

    i am a struggling reator and will finally be getting a professionally done website, maybe 2 or 3. let’s say a realtor serves 15 towns personally but is licensed statewide, thus can internet market to buyers interested in 30 towns. wouldn’t having – worst case scenario – 30 websites, each with their own content and exact match domain names the best for the realtor and for the users of his/her websites? how much text is needed per town page and how many pages must a website be to compete. i am in the rehobot beach delaware area, and competition is tough here, as it is most everywhere. did i have a question : ) not sure : ) thanks.

  • Will

    Hi Vanessa,

    I have a bricks and clicks business which is built around a single brand. Competitors who have ‘keyword rich domain’ micro sites generally out-perform us in organic SERPs, which contradicts your advice.

    They don’t out-perform other single brand businesses who are more established than us. (We have traded for 3 years as opposed to 10 say..) So, where is our reward for following a single brand focused strategy as opposed to often spammy micro sites?

    People like us seem to have to accept that Google will give short term favour to keyword rich domains until our brands have been well established.

    As far as I can see from my business sector, Google is encouraging the micro site strategy with its current algorithm.

    I don’t think many of the people replying to this post dis-agree with what you say in principle, however when you are at the cold, hard business edge micro sites do better in the rankings and make more money.

    As an experiment I registered a 3 word keyword rich domain for a product in my sector and put some spammy, weak content on it and guess what? It ranks no.2 for the term on that alone. Something is not right there and Google really needs to address this.

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  • Andrei

    Great post Vanessa, I personally do not recommend my clients to use microsites as you loose actually the whole identity of the company. If it is a must, usually we recommend them to use one or two (depending on the client’s business industry). But the biggest thing is that once they have one microsite they will always ask for more.

  • Andrei

    And one other thing is that more and more we hear that having dozen of microsites is best for the linking strategies, etc
    Like you said, this is totally wrong. They will focus on rising dozen of websites/microsites and they will end up tired and with absolutely no reasonable results.

  • James F.

    RIP to micro sites. I am seeing less and less weight on exact keyword match domains setup with quick wordpress and it all re-direct to another site..

    I was thinking about moving into this micro-site strategy but it’s a gamble, I can spend hours and hours making them, but like a switch Google changes it up. I’d rather play the correct and safe field, and make everything for users first.

    Thanks for the blog,
    James F.

  • Erica Douglass

    If you want proof that keyword domains work (and that that part of this post is completely inaccurate), Google

    superior coffee

    No quotes. I actually found this one when working with a client yesterday.

    It gets about 4,000 searches per month. And you’ll see that the #8 result is superiorcoffee.org.

    superiorcoffee.org has no website–it’s just an Apache generated index. No backlinks according to Yahoo Site Explorer. And, according to archive.org, it had a brief “Under construction” website in 2001 and has had nothing since.

    Yet it’s ranking #8 for its keyword.

    It’s too bad that people will take you at your word since you used to work for Google, etc.


  • rumblepup

    Long time lurker, first time poster. Be nice. 🙂
    Vanessa, I know I’m late to this conversation, but I think I’ve got something to add to the conversation. I understand and somewhat agree with the point your making, however, I don’t see the evidence in the SERP’s even after a few algo updates since 2007 (just in case your indicating that 2007 is a milemarker of some sort)

    “There is so much super valuable content on domains that aren’t keyword rich and there is so much spammy, crappy content on keyword-rich domains that Google just doesn’t find it useful as a relevance signal.”

    I think that there are certain verticals that Google just does not pay attention to, because keyword urls that consist of just three posts and two inbound links are getting above the fold placement in the SERP. Maybe this will change with another algo update, but I’ve seen three updates so far that haven’t changed one iota. You might claim that these are low volume searches, and maybe this isn’t tripping a Google sensor, low volume for Nike might be EXCEPTIONAL volume for something like nurses shoes or some other niche, or even sub niche.

    “People also sometimes think operating multiple domains will help search engine rankings in other ways, such as that you can link to yourself for instant PageRank credit! Or that you can dominate the search results with all those domains. I hate to be the one to break the news, but search engines are on to those things too. Over time, search engines generally can figure out when sites are part of an owned network and then treat them accordingly (which is similar to how they would treat the content if it were all part of one site). And if you now want to ask how do they know so you can figure out how to hide it, then you’re getting dangerously close to thinking about search engine manipulation. Maybe you should read this and then come back.”

    This does not explain big networks like csnstores or hayneedle, who’s main IBL’s are from within their own network. Each of their hundreds of sites all link to at least three of there other hundreds of sites. Last I look, they certainly dominate the SERPS, and Google certainly know who they are, and are still granting them super SERP status.

    “But just as importantly, once you start focusing one building your business based on perceived signals in the search engine algorithms, you’ve lost sight of why you’re building the business in the first place and of your customers and while this may seem like a minor diversion, it may take you down a completely different path than the one that’s based on building substantial user value.”

    But some business is purely search results oriented. They just are. Some retail categories don’t have well known brands or well known materials. They are representative of items or services that are purchased when someone searches online for them. And if you think about it, this IS branding, because searches expect to see the authority websites in their search results. If the website “looks” right, brands itself well with the right layout and content, it get’s the sale, but first it had to get the SERP. And if the online searcher gets to website called 8inchbluewidgets.com, and that’s what they are after, and that’s what the site sells, then purpose served.

    “But launching a whole bunch of keyword-rich microsites related to your industry in hopes that you’ll get all those microsites ranking separately for variations of query? Probably not the awesomest idea ever.”

    Sorry, still not convinced, especially when the search results have been and are still telling a different story.

  • franck

    Good article. What i like the most is how you prove that multiple websites strategy is not the smart one in an SEO perspective and for marketing purposes too.
    I think that sometimes there are kinds of incomprehensions between marketing team (focus on branding) and seo experts (focus on visibility on serps). One of the key argument that i usually take is about the power of external links on sites that have been around longer and most of the time if you create a new page inside the main domain it’s better for rankings.

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  • Matt

    While it’s been my experience you’re right on when it comes to a company’s use of microsites, what about affiliate marketers? A company that uses microsites is usually playing at a disadvantage because they have already built value and momentum on a main site (supposedly). An affiliate marketer, however, is usually looking to promote a single product or niche of products through a small site. This is (hopefully) through pitching value in the form of a product review, related articles, etc. Any thoughts there?

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  • Florida gator forum

    Awesome article. Though you mentioned “Sometimes they are a great idea” and didn’t really talk about any positive scenarios. Care to talk about when microsites are a good idea?


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