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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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by:Jason C. Levine
JH,

What about keyword.yourdomain.com subdomains?  Good?  Bad?  Indifferent?
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by:jhoekman
@jason1178:

Subdomains can be a great tool for accomplishing something very similar.  With a subdomain, you don't get the same weight as you do when your keywrod is in the root domain, but they are a good alternative.  Plus, they do a better job at transferring link-authority to your primary domain AND they have a better internal linking structure between the subdomain and the primary TLD.   Also, subdomains don't require maintaining a new URL for renewal, SSL certs, etc, which makes them easier from an execution standpoint.  

Ultimately, from a pure SEO standpoint, I would think that a highly-targed, well-executed domain landing page/microsite would perform the best, but to know for sure, I'd suggest a test between the two.  Once the test is over, use your rel canonical tag to point to the winner once you see which ranks better.  
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by:Saqib Khan
This article is helpfull if someone wants to do everything "Legally"... You forgot to mention...."Do not Copy your site into another" just to double the traffic, Tiny design & urls techniques to be unique will not HELP & google will penalize your website for good. if both sites have same content (Products) then google recommends you to do 301 redirect to one parent site. however if you have a domain like TV.com & then you have Sony.TV.com, Samsung.Tv.com then its perfectly legal...since each sub domain will represent its own brand and content. please do keep in mind Regular SSL will not cover SubDomains (Unless you have Wild Card SSL).
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by:jhoekman
Thanks for your feedback, adikhan!  I appreciate what you wrote and will do my best to clarify on a couple suggestions you made.  

Tiny design & urls techniques to be unique will not HELP
Totally agree.  Great point!  If you are going to create microsites, you can't just copy/paste existing content.  You need to use a new content strategy that applies specifically to the microsite approach.

If both sites have same content (Products) then google recommends you to do 301 redirect.
This is correct if the duplicate information resides on your site and you want it to belong only to one page.  And as a rule, 301 is always preferred over rel canonical.  However, the caveat (and why I recommended it) is for instances where a) you are dealing with content that exists on two separate domains where you want to allow people to consume it on each domain or b) you want to list content in two separate locations and maintain each location independently because they have slightly different navigation, etc.  In these cases, a rel canonical would be your best bet and would protect you from the dup content issues you may otherwise face.  

Please do keep in mind Regular SSL will not cover SubDomains (Unless you have Wild Card SSL)
Great point!  

These are great points that add a lot of value to this discussion.  Thanks again for posting them!
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by:WaterStreet
Voted Yes, article helpful, above.
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by:Jason C. Levine
With a subdomain, you don't get the same weight as you do when your keyword is in the root domain

This is true but the problem nowadays is getting a URL with a common keyword at all.  If my keyword is "snibblesnorts" I can probably still get snibblesnorts.com.  If my keyword is "widget" then forget about it.  So subdomains give you that extra little advantage in that you can absolutely isolate a keyword in the URL...

Otherwise, I agree with what you said above.
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by:jhoekman
This is true but the problem nowadays is getting a URL with a common keyword at all.

And that is a fantastic point as well.  This was originally written as an answer to a question for someone who already owned their domains, so it made more sense for him.  Finding the right domain with various keywords is going to be a challenge, for sure.  But for those people who can either a) find a domain or b) already have domains and are simply redirecting them to their primary domain, this would be an interesting approach.  

Great feedback, Jason. You make some solid points.  
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by:Kevin Cross
Nice work, sir! My Yes vote is above.
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by:jhoekman
For those of you who commented, you might find this interesting.

As of today, Google has changed the way they classify suddomains, in essence grouping all subdomains with your primary domain rather than treating them as different sites.  

As such, links from subdomains will now carry less weight as they will be internal links rather than external links.  One can also deduce that this will mean that subdomains will no longer show up separately in the SERPS, so the brand management benefit of subdomains has been removed, making the idea of the microsite even more attractive.

FYI.
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by:Jason C. Levine
Bah.

effing Google.
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by:WaterStreet

"... which removes the benefit of using subdomains as a reputation management or SERP control strategy."

Out of curiosity, how was that a benefit before?  I'm not an expert in these matters.


Won't the site still benefit from these?
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by:Jason C. Levine
Waterstreet,

What all website owners want are "external" links.  We want people on other sites creating links to our content.  Google uses external (or inbound) links to determine the quality of your site.  "Internal" links (you linking to yourself) needs to be done so Google can crawl the site and find content but it has a much smaller effect on SERP.

Prior to this change, subdomain.domain.com linking to www.domain.com was treated as an external link by Google.  This means you could raise your site's profile and also manage reputation (since you control both subdomain and main domain) in one shot.  But Google has closed the loophole, probably because it was being abused.
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by:WaterStreet
Ah!

Thanks
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by:jhoekman
Yes, Jason, that is part of it.

@WaterStreet,

Out of curiosity, how was that a benefit before?
Another benefit was that Google would treat it as a separate site and list it individually on the search engine results page for your brand.  Now that they group subdomains with your root domain, they will group all results together.  This means that microsites are now the sole owner of the benefit of having another place in the SERPs for your brand.

Does that help, too?
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by:WaterStreet
Yes
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by:hari1234
This post tells us that what are the different activities we should have to perform while doing the SEO for particular website.Thanks for the post, i m really looking forward to this post.
seo mumbai
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