Subdomains: A Solution to the Microsite Problem

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Vanessa Fox, SEO maven and founder of  Nine By Blue, recently blogged about her take on microsites – campaign specific websites setup on a separate domain for the purpose of promoting a new product or service. In summary, she argued that microsites are not the most “awesomest” strategy because:

  • You lose brand identity and audience engagement
  • You lose the ability to leverage said audience
  • You don’t get search engine value you think you’re getting

Last year at this time, I would have disagreed and dismissed her opinion. I was a true believer in “separate campaign, separate website”, mostly because I thought it would improve user experience. Then I did research, followed up by tests in a controlled environment. What did I find? She’s absolutely right.

When creating a microsite, you’re starting with a blank slate- new domain, no links, no subscribers/customers/leads, and no brand identity. Everything you worked so hard for- the links, building engagement, and killer content – means nothing anymore. This isn’t just a swan song for the microsite, however. Your main domain also suffers because it loses the content, keywords, and links it would have gotten if you kept the microsite on your domain.

I recently consulted for a client that wanted to launch 3 microsites for new vertical launches in the next 2 months. After telling them to get a refund from their domain registrar after securing 15 URLs (yes, they fell victim to the Godaddy upsell hell) I proposed the following solution to their problem: subdomains. On his blog, Matt Cutts, head engineer of Google’s web spam team, posted about the use of subdomains and their purpose of separating out content on a domain. Using that logic, a hypothetical example of the advice I gave to the client would be:

  • Client’s Domain: MyLocalStore.com
  • Industry: Consumer Goods
  • Vertical 1: Food sales, Microsite Subdomain 1: “Food.MyLocalStore.com”
  • Vertical 2: Drink sales, Microsite Subdomain 2: “Drinks.MyLocalStore.com”
  • Vertical 3: Paper goods, Microsite Subdomain 3: “PaperGoods.MyLocalStore.com”

In the above example, all content created for the food sales vertical at MyLocalStore.com would be placed on the Food.MyLocalStore.com subdomain. Alternatively, content for drink sales would be on the Drinks.MyLocalStore.com subdomain, and so on. Instead of losing the MyLocalStore brand, links, and domain authority, we’ve piggybacked on the main URL and preserved the MyLocalStore.com brand.

Using a subdomain as a substitute for microsites is best when you have a lot of unique content for the vertical new product or service. An alternative to subdomains, when you don’t have enough content to populate another website, would be subdirectories. A typical example of using subdirectories would be for a corporate or small business website in the following manner:

  • http://myagency.com/index.html (HOME)
  • http://myagency.com/about/index.html (ABOUT US)
  • http://myagency.com/services/index.html (OUR SERVICES)
  • http://myagency.com/services/seo-consulting/index.html (OUR SEO SERVICES)

While it’s generally best practice to use a flat architecture when building out a website, I tend to use subdirectories due to their ease of use and categorical organization value. If you do decide to go this route, you must have a sitemap (both XML for bots and HTML for humans) so Google and other search engines can easily crawl the site. For XML sitemaps, I always use http://www.xml-sitemaps.com- it’s clean, quick, and simple. After creating your XML sitemap head over to Google Webmaster Tools and add your site, if you haven’t already, and be sure to submit your sitemap.

To conclude, however, I must say the microsites do have value depending on the circumstance. If you are looking to spin off an entirely different business process or idea with loose connection to the main brand (i.e. a digital arm of a reputable full service ad agency) or have little to no brand recognition and are looking to expand into different verticals, then microsites may be the way to go. Like all information you find on the internet, the best way to find the answer is to test.

3 readers have left a comment. Add one yourself!

  1. Pingback: 6 Reasons Microsites Suck for Ecommerce, SEO and Branding | Ecommerce Zen

  2. Anthony, this is a great article, and I referenced you here…
    http://www.ecommercezen.com/google/6-reasons-mi…

    Honestly I could have come up with 10 other reasons for avoiding microsites, but I figured people wouldn't read that many. I just think they are so short-sighted.

  3. Thanks for this. Happy that yours was the first article on subdomains vs microsites that I landed upon. And don’t think I look to read more to take a decision.

    Would you have any secondary data comparing the SEO statistics of Subdomain Vs Microsites ? While I understand it is logical to think subdomains should work better for SEO, but it would be wonderful to have data to drive home the point.

    Thanks Again

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