The twists and turns of SEO: Do I need a microsite?
Even as business owners start jumping onboard the social networking bandwagon for their websites, many are still confused about search engine optimization (SEO) and why they even need it in the first place.
While SEO sounds like a scientific discipline it’s far from it. Instead, this black art utilizes some scientific tools (and methods) such as keyword density, meta tag descriptions, xml sitemaps and backlinking to help formalize the process and offer concrete steps towards to achieving a top 10 placement on the first page of organic results offered by Google, Bing and Yahoo.
However, even amongst so-called SEO experts there is still discord over which elements are crucial, superfluous or mandatory in climbing towards the #1 position on an engine.
To make matters worse, Google and other engines are constantly updating their algorithms to help combat the gaming tactics of SEO practitioners and, yes, content spammers.
At the end of the day, most experts would tend to agree that a successful web strategy should generally include adding new, relevant content to your site on a regular basis. Reciprocal linking, while important, is a secondary strategy.
Along with a clear navigational structure and new content designed to engage the reader, your website should progressively climb up the rankings. That’s the theory.
However, what happens when your competitor is doing the same thing? It now becomes a matter of degrees, especially when chasing a #1 organic spot. If your site requires a redesign, this process can get even more complicated since it requires a certain amount of analysis, testing and jury-rigging to ensure your legacy pages do not lose their current ranking by leveraging devices such as 301 redirects.
The lure of the microsite
One particular area that many SEO experts are not harmonized on is the use of building micro-niche or ‘satellite’ websites to help boost traffic back to the mothership site and gain extra traction on engines like Google.
Companies such as Nike and Coca Cola have pushed out these microsites, which are often temporary marketing vessels for new products or promotions, on a regular basis.
You have probably also noticed that each new movie that gets released such as Iron Man has its own microsite, rather than being a sub-section on the studio domain parent URL.
While often successful in helping boost rankings, it remains controversial.
For instance, former Google employees such as Vanessa box, who is currently promoting her new book, Marketing in the Age of Google: Your Online Strategy IS Your Business Strategyargue that this approach, most of the time, merely dilutes the brand, focus and long-term success of a website.
In her view, the same results could be achieved by simply creating new sections on the parent site. You can read her concise views on this subject in her blog post Microsites. A Bad Idea Most of the Time.
Even this simple directive can get clouded if one considers the further choice between building a new section at mysite.com/category/new-product versus new-product.mysite.com. In this example a choice between the sub-directory and the sub-domain is close tie since the jury is still out over which approach Google favors.
Fox’s views are taken seriously since she was instrumental in formulating Google’s original Webmaster Central which is a critical tool in any Optimizer’s toolkit.
Others, such as Shaun Anderson, who runs the SEO Blog, Learn SEO, begs to differ with Fox, stating her strategy may be relevant to big sites such as Nike but not to smaller businesses who can benefit from clustered microsites surrounding the parent site. You can read his retort in Microsites: A good idea most of the time
He backs this up with examples of how this approach has helped in SEO efforts.
“I think it all depends on how many resources you have to pump these out and manage them. I ALWAYS recommend one main brand domain – I’d never recommend (to most of the types of clients I deal with), using a generic keyword domain if you want to build a brand,” said Anderson.
This is a complex subject and both sides bring up important points.
I personally believe that the microsite strategy borders on ‘gaming’ Google. It may well work but it over-complicates the strategy of a small business owner and may end up one day being penalized as Google revises it strategy and thinking. However, there may be situations where you wish to experiment with a product without jeopardizing the health of the main site.
I consider these exceptions to the rule.
At the end of the day, a good SEO strategy must rely on building quality content and engaging the customer. If you spend all you time agonizing over how Google is ranking your site you may well have lost touch with your customers.
For this reason, I will leave the last word to Fox who concludes her article by stating:
“Once you start focusing on 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.”
If you would like to delve deeper into this inflammatory topic then read this post by Michael Martinez The Microsite Mistake – Mistaking Microsites for Mistakes which pits the value of microsites against the benefits of link-based SEO put forward by Rand Fishkin of SEOMOZ.
As usual, there is no black or white answer on the subject, simply shades of gray. Such is life!