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SEO FAQs: Microsite or Root Domain, That is the Question

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Many times, I come across people who own various domains in addition to their primary domain and are simply redirecting them to their primary domain.  These people often consider building a microsite on those domains (a smaller site dedicated only to niche categories within their overall industry/vertical) in order to help rank better rank for those keywords.  Or I hear from people asking whether or not they should purchase separate domains specifically with the goal of hosting a microsite on them.  

While there are definitely arguments to be made on each side, I am personally a fan of the landing page or microsite idea, as long as you execute correctly and do it for the right reasons.  

And for those of you who are considering purchasing or already own domains and are redirecting them to your root domain, please pay extra special attention to this, because your current strategy is a WASTE OF TIME.  

Let's start with the reasons why you might not want to pursue this strategy.  You can also see this list as a word of caution for attempting this strategy too often.

Cons:

Finding available domains can be difficult.  For those of you who do not already own your domain, finding a keyword rich domain can be a bit of a challenge, especially if you are competing for high traffic keywords.  And if you can't find a relevant domain, the whole strategy is moot.  But for those of you who a) already own various domains or b) can find a great domain or two, I suggest you keep reading.  

Managing multiple domains can be time intensive.  In order to do it right, you need to put time and energy into the additional domains to make sure they provide value, promote your brand and earn links.  In reality, though, this would not be any more difficult than managing a focused/niche experience on your own site, so I don't think it's that much of a problem.

Multiple domains reduces link-juice/domain authority of your primary domain.  One of the key aspects to ranking well in SEO is the authority of your domain.  Your domain authority is determined by many factors such as the age of your domain, the number of links pointing to your domain and the QUALITY of the sites linking to your domain.  

When you build out these separate microsites, assuming you do a good job, those sites are going to earn links that will give them value.  Because those links aren't pointing directly to your primary domain, the link-juice that is eventually passed to your primary domain from links on the microsites is reduced.  The result is that your primary domain doesn't earn the authority that it is due, because of this diluted link-juice.

If you simply redirect, you don't create SEO value.  By purchasing domains and simply redirecting the them to your current site, the only value you will get is when people type in that actual domain, which will probably be rare.

It doesn't scale.  In general, scaling refers to the ability to expand efforts quickly and easily in an effort to meet increasing demands.  Something that is build to be scalable can take on a hundred requests nearly as easily as it can take on one. For example, most websites are scalable because they can handle one visitor nearly as easily as they can handle one million.  In the case of a microsite, because each new site requires a lot more work to maintain, your efforts will not scale to all portions of your site.  In other words, you cannot simply apply your microsite strategy to 100 sites without increasing your work 100 fold.

That said, there are a couple reasons why you might do this, and why I think you should.  

Pros:

Reputation Management.  This is the main reason I would at least consider optimizing these separate domains to be individual micro-sites.  When someone searches for your brand, you are limited to the number of results that will show up for that search.  Having these other sites will add to the number of links that you control on that first page, which is key.  But don't go crazy on these.  You want to make sure that the lion's share of the work goes to your main site.  However, by building these sites out enough to be relevant to the search results, you will help manage your brand by having more 'controlled' responses.

Niche sites work.  From my experience, niche sites can yield 2X+ gains in engagement, conversion, etc.  The more specific the site is to a particular niche, the greater the perceived quality of that site to the people who come to is.  By creating a micro-site or a niche site, you are creating a highly targeted, highly focused, highly relevant site for your users which adds to the perceived value of that site.  BUT, again, it's not scalable so don't go too crazy with it.

Overall, there are reasons for and against doing this, but this is the one that makes me think you should do it...

You'll never know until you try!

 
If you already own a domain or two, or can secure some keyword rich domains, you are on your way to creating some pretty sweet, highly targeted experiences that help manage your brand and engage your users.  To me, being successful is DEFINITELY a possible outcome so it's a scratch that's worth itching.

And if you do give it a try, just make sure to use a WordPress templated site so that set-up and management of the site is super-easy on you and your team. The last thing you want to do is to spend a ton of time and energy scratching an itch only to find out that it is poison oak and now  you have to go to the hospital.

[Update | September 2, 2011]

After some fantastic discussion in the comments of this article about the microsites vs. subdomains, I found out that Google has updated the way they are treating subdomains.  According to this post on SERoundtable, it is apparent that Google now includes subdomains in the same group as your primary domain.  

What does this mean?  Well, it's implications are far-reaching, but for the sake of this article, it means that subdomains will no longer rank in the SERPs (search engine results pages) as a separate site.  Rather, they will now be grouped into your primary site, which removes the benefit of using subdomains as a reputation management or SERP control strategy, leaving the microsite strategy as king of the reputation management hill.
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Author:jhoekman
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