Microsites: Fleeting Fad Or Solid Search Strategy?

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Although far from the fashions gracing the catwalks of New York, Paris, and Milan, search engine marketing trends come and go just as quickly. Microsites are a perfect example. Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of this current favorite of the search world, and in the process help you determine whether a microsite strategy warrants an investment on your part.

What Is The Value Of A Microsite?

According to Wikipedia, a microsite — sometimes called a mini-site or weblet —“is an Internet web design term referring to an individual web page or cluster of pages which are meant to function as an auxiliary supplement to a primary website.”

Numerous reasons can lead marketers to consider building a microsite. Microsites are particularly effective at helping promote a new product or solution. For example, if you have a product that you want to market outside of the main initiatives on your corporate website, a microsite may be an ideal solution, especially if you want to employ a distinct URL to promote the product. Microsites are also useful for marketing upcoming events, contests, or viral marketing campaigns, where a separate and distinct URL and website offer numerous advantages as far as promotion is concerned.

Companies also implement microsites for endeavors such as loyalty programs and community-building efforts. A couple of memorable examples launched in this vein are for the brands Coke and Reebok. Coke launched the MyCokeRewards microsite in 2006 as a customer loyalty campaign, and it is still a strong destination site. The extension of the program year after year is indicative of its success. Reebok built its GoRunEasy site to allow users to map their favorite running routes and share them with friends. It also allows sharing of music and playlists, and overall has helped to create a community for runners.

Beyond branding, microsites can help you concentrate on a specific target audience. Are you looking to expand current messaging for a particular product or area on your website? Do you want to target your messaging so precisely that it might make sense to build out a completely new site to support your efforts? Assuming that you have a clear strategy and concise message, a microsite might be the answer.

Further still, microsites can help you bypass hurdles if your main site is bogged down with internal pressures and inertia. Perhaps you have tried to convince your web team to make changes to site URLs but they have resisted your recommendations, or you have found yourself stuck between a rock and a hard place because you are sold on the success of keyword-centric URLs but your developers aren’t convinced? On the other hand, maybe you want to engage the community by adding a forum or blog to your main domain, but all you have achieved is pushback from legal? Whatever the case, if efforts on the main site have been plagued by obstacles arising from concerns over difficulties or risks involved in changing your existing site, creating a microsite may help circumnavigate such issues.

Avoid The Microsite Fad

With benefits like these, why shouldn’t everyone jump on the microsite bandwagon? One major reason — the value you derive is directly correlated to the proper use of a microsite, and search marketers may be enticed by microsites for the wrong reason.

Now granted, I’m no fashionista — not even a GQ subscription here — but I know a trend when I see one. And the trend in this case is search marketers trying to leverage microsites for the sole purpose of increasing SEO visibility. They tell themselves that since a website can only rank for two organic text listings per search engine results page (SERP), they can dominate the results by creating several smaller sites. Unfortunately, this logic is flawed. Such marketers wind up with many duplicate pages and, at best, what they ultimately end up creating is more competition for themselves.

This strategy of leveraging microsites for increased SEO visibility is not only a popular misconception in search today — it is also ill-advised. Why? Three main reasons — search engines are smarter than in the past, searchers themselves are more savvy, and your marketing efforts should have evolved enough by this point to make such a strategy obsolete. Instead, marketers need to gain clarity on a microsite’s true value, realizing that a successful microsite involves a lot more than creating a few pages on a new domain. The absolute worst outcome is creating a microsite just to take up additional real estate in the SERPs.

Universal Search has forced a major change in the search landscape. Many different types of results flood the SERPs today — images, news, blogs, articles, and videos — resulting in a lot more than just website or microsite listings returned when users conduct their queries. Rather than thinking about how to take up more real estate on the SERPs, marketers need to concentrate on optimizing their assets for search engines and users to find. This approach not only lessens or eliminates the need to create new content, but also broadens the depth of the main website.

Case Study Of A Microsite Mistake

Like most things online, microsites come in two styles — successful and unsuccessful. While I have seen plenty of both, the latter is by far the most common. One illustration of an unsuccessful microsite strategy involves an insurance client I worked with several years ago, whom I’ll call InsuranceX.com.

After I had worked with the client for about six months on their site, they asked for help to create ten additional domains. Their goal? To rank better in the SERPs on highly competitive insurance-related keyword phrases. Despite my company’s recommendation to create sub-domains within the main domain, the client chose the microsite approach, where each domain would be dedicated to a specific type of insurance, such as auto, life, health, etc.

Unfortunately, the goal did not substantiate the strategy. There was no new product promotion, event, or viral campaign to warrant the investment. Moreover, there was also no unique content or value for these sites. Sadly, the only thing they definitely had at the start of the initiative was a lack of resources to maintain this many properties.

Before too long — and as anticipated — InsuranceX.com’s strategy failed, but the initiative’s downfall was not solely due to a lack of resources. The relative age of the sites was a crucial part of the failure. Because the domains were brand-new, they faced major challenges in the eyes of the search engines; namely, no established credibility, authority, history, etc. In fact, the new domains spent a great deal of time in the sandbox we so commonly hear about. As hard as we worked to pursue linking opportunities, we saw little impact on the success of the sites within the SERPs.

Looking back on the situation, if InsuranceX.com had taken our recommendation to pursue sub-domains as opposed to microsites, we might have been able to leverage the established history, credibility, and trust that the main domain had already built up. In addition, this strategy would have kept the focus on improving the overall visibility of InsuranceX.com in the SERPs, and it would have provided users with a more consistent experience.

Making The Decision

So how do you know if a microsite is the right choice for your situation? While clearly a valuable asset to marketers, microsites aren’t an off-the-rack or one-size-fits-all endeavor. Given that, one must consider a number of issues before deciding to build one. You need to assess whether or not it will fit your requirements, as well as determining if the investment or time and money will be worthwhile. A good place to start is by asking yourself the following four questions:

1. What is the microsite’s purpose?

Having clarity on the ultimate goal is vital, so give it some serious thought. Are you looking to promote a new product or solution? Perhaps you want to target a very specific audience, maybe much deeper than you already do? Answering “yes” to either of these options indicates that a microsite might very well make sense for you.

2. Do we have the resources to build and maintain the microsite?

While basic, this fundamental question is often overlooked. Marketers tend to underestimate the time and resources required to keep a microsite fresh, different, and — most importantly — optimized, especially given the need for unique and valuable content that differs from that of your main domain. Microsites require considerable care and feeding, as they are far from self-sufficient entities. Beyond the initial investment in the build, they take additional effort and resources to optimize and maintain. To put it in perspective, recall that in many organizations one person is responsible for researching and obtaining relevant links, content build-out and optimization, PPC strategies and analysis, and social search. If you multiply their duties by one, two, or three additional websites, the efficacy of that resource declines considerably. It works exactly the same way with microsites. To manage these ancillary domains, you’ll need to commit additional resources. Microsites are not necessarily “micro” in terms of the cost and resources needed to develop and maintain them. Without the appropriate resources, a microsite strategy could prove to be a risky investment.

3. Can we deliver unique value and content?

While resources are crucial to the success of a microsite, they are trumped by something else entirely — value and content. Marketers should be mindful that each microsite needs to deliver both unique value and unique content. You cannot borrow content from your main domain and expect success. To do so invariably ends up causing more problems than it was intended to solve.

4. Can we afford the risk?

Even when properly constructed and rich in unique value and content, microsites are not without risk. For starters, your microsite may outrank your main domain on certain keywords (depending on how different the theme or product focus is). On top of that, if not handled correctly, a microsite may create a poor user experience. Companies with multiple domains often try to link the sites to increase link value — which is a valid SEO tactic — but when these sites exist purely for the sake of ranking, a poor user experience results. Think about it this way — how can users understand one marketing message when they have to navigate through three websites to find the product or resource they are looking for?

Best Practices For Successful Microsites

By now, you should have a good idea of whether or not microsites would be a viable strategy to pursue. If you are ready to move forward, my advice is to have a clear goal of what you want the microsite to accomplish, and then consider the following best practices:

  • Domain Considerations — Use a domain name that is both sensible and will be associated with your brand or theme by searchers. A cautionary tale — in a recent Yahoo! presentation of a slide listing two dozen microsites used in commercials around the Super Bowl, not one person in the room could identify the brands the domains were tied to. If you are going to develop a microsite, choose the domain name wisely, ensuring that you tie it in with your other marketing initiatives. Try to buy an aged domain that has been around for a bit and has some established credibility. Do your homework. Conduct searches on the domain to try to discover any negative connotations associated with it. Leverage free tools available at sites such as DomainTools.com in this effort.
  • Audience — Once the goal/vision is determined, identify a few keywords that best relate to the theme of the microsite. Work with your search agency to identify opportunistic keywords or use free tools offered by some of the major search engines such as Google or Microsoft.
  • Content — Keep your content both unique and fresh. Marketers tend to struggle with this recommendation, yet it is the most important. Think back to why you considered creating the microsite in the first place, and put yourself in your prospective customer’s shoes. When they arrive at the site, will they find it compelling enough to take action?
  • Call to Action — Define primary and secondary calls to action. What do you want a visitor to do when they arrive at your site? Make sure that calls to action are prominently displayed on the site, so visitors don’t need to search your pages to find them. Trust me, if they need to look for them, they won’t!
  • Cross-Linking — Be sure to cross-link between your main domain and the microsite, but only where appropriate. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. In some cases, you may not want to establish any connection between the two sites. This comes down to a business decision. If you do link between the sites, use keyword-centric keywords in the hyperlinks.
  • Metrics and Analysis — Establish values and/or quality-of-visitor scores. Once you have determined what you want a visitor to do when they get to your site, assign a value to how much it is worth to you to get them there. For example, is a registration worth more to you than a newsletter download? Does a registration lead to a purchase more often than a newsletter because the latter only has half the conversion success?

Concluding Remarks

It is easy to become caught up in a trend, and microsites are a good example of how this can happen. Search marketers are not exempt from the urge to follow trends, as evidenced by the upswing in the use of microsites solely for the purpose of increasing SEO visibility. However, smart marketers will take the time to assess the true value of a microsite strategy, and ensure that their marketing goals and priorities align with the effort required for such an initiative. If you are thinking about investing in microsites, remember that it may turn into a macro effort. Not only does a microsite require considerable resources, it also warrants close scrutiny on how it will affect your bottom line. Only after an assessment of all the risks, benefits, and costs can you make the ultimate decision about whether the microsite strategy will bear fruit for your online enterprise.

About the Author

Andrew Wheeler is Managing Director of iProspect Chicago. Now in his seventh year at the search engine marketing firm, he oversees the development and execution of marketing strategies, and delivers superior results for clients in the region, including Alcon Laboratories, Procter & Gamble, and Experian.

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