Our clients often ask us whether they should start a microsite (a cluster of pages under a separate domain name) or a separate blog hosted elsewhere. In most cases, we advise our clients against this. In this blog post, I’ll explain why your association shouldn’t, and a few exceptions when you should. I’ll also talk about how we used microsites when our clients’ needs were exceptional.
Why Not Build a Microsite?
Microsites represent a bad investment of resources. If you multiple sites, you not only have to manage the site, software, content, user interface, hosting, etc; you have to manage how the sites interact with each other. Do you link from the main site to the microsite or from the microsite to the main site? How do you build authority on the microsite domain? How do you transfer that authority to the main domain? (Or would you want to transfer authority from the primary domain to a microsite, and how?). If a reporter calls, do you link to the main site or to the microsite? The upshot of all this is that resources are better spent on your own site.
It’s not that separate sites are bad: the Internet is built on a diversity of sites. A microsite is meant to be quick and dirty, easy to set up and tear down, small, and disposable. You know: “micro.” The problem is that small, quick, and easy does not translate into successful on the Web. There’s no substitute for blood, toil, tears and sweat.
Here are some common mistakes associated with the use of microsites and separate blogs that we share with our clients to explain why they are not the best strategy to use in most cases.
Ignoring the site’s full life-cycle
A website has a full life-cycle: inception, development, launch, maintenance, close-out/archive. The last two steps are universally ignored when thinking about launching a microsite. Usually a microsite is forgotten, the code stops working, and meets an ungraceful end. What’s worse is it is often hosted on the same server as other, active sites. As such, this presents a security risk not only to the microsite itself, but to all the other sites hosted on the server, because sites that are not updated may contain exploitable code that can lead to disastrous infections of the entire server.
Choosing a “better” domain name
There is a prevailing belief that a acquiring a “better,” specific, more relevant, domain name will somehow increase SEO. This is a poor argument, because the SEO value of a domain name alone is questionable at best. In fact, a domain may carry “dirty” SEO baggage from a previous incantation: your perfect domain may have been a link-farm last year. This will actually hurt the SEO value of the website. Lastly, a new domain name will not benefit from the established domain authority of your existing domain.
On the other hand, some domain names may have better inherent SEO value. Determining whether a domain name by itself is sufficiently better may cost upwards of a few thousand dollars in research, before a microsite is ever launched. If this is within the budget, then your microsite may be the exception.
Forgetting the Funnel
Another common pitfall we see is a microsite launched with no strategy for encouraging the desired user flow. Often times, the main site will include multiple high-value links to the microsite, in order to boost the microsite’s SEO. In this case, you are devaluing the main site in preference of the microsite: the tables have turned. Instead of a marketing channel that drives people from your microsite to your site, the microsite drives people away from your main site.
Believing it is Good for SEO
This is the #1 excuse we hear in support of microsite. People think it will improve the ranking of their main site because it provides lots of links to it. But the mantra from Google and every other search engine is this: what’s good for SEO is what’s good for users. If you can’t express how the microsite itself helps your users, you should not develop a microsite.
Microsites that Work
Here is a list of questions we ask our clients who are considering developing a microsite:
- Is the subject matter of the new site considerably different from your main brand or message?
- Is the “voice” of the existing site inappropriate for the new content?
- Does your current website technology not support a blog?
- Do you have sufficient resources to fully support a new site?
- Is your microsite going to be short-lived, and do you have an exit strategy for it?
If the answers to these questions are “yes”, your business or organization may be a good candidate for a microsite
We have built successful microsites for our clients. Here is why the strategy worked in each of these cases:
One of our clients, BRG Communications, is a PR and Communications firm. The legacy content management system they used for their main
site BRGCommunications.com could not accommodate a blog. As part of their more informal social media marketing efforts that also included LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+ and Flickr, we developed a WordPress-powered microsite hosted at BRGLiving.com.
Cindi Hobgood spent 25 years traveling the world scouting film and television locations for major Hollywood studios before she decided to share her talent of finding the perfect shot for DC photographers, DC Photography tours. When she decided to expand her offerings to skills-based tours intended to help photographers get those most out of taking pictures with their iphones, we created a microsite theiphoneexpeditions.com for her hosted at Blogger. It tapped into Blogger’s existing network to help showcase and build a message around iphoneography without overpowering and diluting the main message of the more theme-based expeditions featured on her main scoutphotoexpeditions.com. At the same time, the term “expeditions” used in both domain names helped tie it all together, while the microsite helped funnel traffic to the iphoneography sections of the main site.
The 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps took center stage for our client, the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA). During this time, nearly all organizational resources were devoted to the 50th anniversary events. It made sense, therefore, to launch a microsite. Here’s how we got it right:
- The microsite inherits the authority of the main NPCA site because it is hosted under the peacecorpsconnect.org domain.
- We took care to ensure the design carries the look and feel of the main site.
- Since the 50th was the main focus during this period, our strategy called for pushing traffic from the main website to the microsite, which was hip, new, energizing and motivating. We don’t generally recommend this, but it worked in this unique situation.
- Nevertheless, when the site user was ready to make a commitment, the final step in the funnel led back to the main NPCA site: to buy a ticket or make travel arrangements. In doing so, we reminded members that this was still an effort of the NPCA and they should remember to join and donate.
- Our strategy planned for the full lifecycle of the website: the site is currently mothballed in plain HTML, which minimizes any security risk while not requiring regular CMS updates.
Not convinced? If you’re interested in learning more about microsites, here are some resources:
- Google’s search and SEO guru, Matt Cutts, talks about microsites (video)
- Rand Fishkin of SEOMoz breaks down the microsite debate.
- Vanessa Fox explains in great detail why Microsites are a bad idea, mostly.