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Internet Marketing using Microsites

by Devon Peterson, October 31, 2007

One of the more interesting Internet marketing methods being implemented today is the creation of microsites. A microsite is a Web site that is considered a child of a larger site and exists to provide information on a topic loosely related to the parent. In most cases, this includes housing content that is either dissimilar to the main theme of your site or perhaps serves an entirely different purpose. To avoid diluting your main theme, it makes sense to put this content on a different domain. Microsites allow site owners to subtly, or sometimes not so subtly, refer to the parent's site brand. In the best instance, they are there to intrigue the surfer into visiting the main Web site, while at the very least they help raise awareness.

There has been a large amount of debate over the usefulness of microsites for the purposes of search engine optimization. Some, like SEOmoz CEO Rand Fishkin, argue that it is more useful to have one strong, popular domain with all the information rather than two separate domains. In his article "Five Reasons Why It's Better to be Big & Popular than Small & Niche", Rand illustrates the difference in benefit that backlinks will have based on whether they are pointing to a microsite that points to a parent domain, or pointing directly to the parent domain itself. His argument is that backlinks will provide more PageRank when they are pointing directly to the original domain over a microsite. In this regard, he is correct. The PageRank algorithm passes its own value divided equally among the pages it links to. Therefore, under a global navigation driven microsite, the following holds true:

In this instance, the site has a global navigation (readable by search engines) in which all pages link to each other. The global navigation also includes a link to the parent domain. Page A (presumably the microsite home page) receives 111% of the actual PageRank given by backlinks since the pages beneath it are all linking back to it. As you can see, the parent domain will only receive 44% of the possible PR being sent over by backlinks to the microsite. If only Page A links to the parent domain, that number dwindles by almost half. Logically speaking, this should mean that it is always a good idea to put the information that would otherwise be on a microsite on the parent domain instead. What Rand and many others don't take into account is the idea of real estate.

Suppose I had a fairly successful site that sold kitchenware and I decided that it would be a good idea to add recipes of popular dishes. The marketing purpose would obviously be to sell my kitchenware as implements for the recipes. There are two routes I could go with this. The first would be to add a Recipes section to my kitchenware Web site. I could easily link the recipes to complementary products (and link products to recipes) to draw traffic into the Recipes section. The marketing ploy would be transparent, but most visitors either wouldn't notice or wouldn't care because they have finally found that perfect recipe for beef stroganoff!

In regards to search engine optimization, however, I wouldn't get many (if any) backlinks in the Recipes section since the visitors coming to my site would be entering from the kitchenware end. They'd only find the Recipes section through the site, rather than through other sources. That section would be nothing more than an addendum to the site.

My other option would be to create a microsite. I could even pick up the domain (which, at the time of this writing, is still available) to take advantage of three strong keywords. I'm fairly confident that with a few on-page modifications I could get my microsite to rank pretty well. Then, I could link my recipes to my kitchenware products, which would appear as testimonial-grade links instead of a marketing ploy. I'd also get quite a few backlinks since recipes is now the main focal point of the site, sending PageRank back to my kitchenware site. I may only be getting 44% of the actual PageRank, but 44% of something is better than 100% of nothing. When optimized correctly, a microsite can help you generate more backlinks than creating an additional section of your Web site.

Note that I said a microsite can generate more backlinks and not that it will generate them. Site owners often make the mistake of creating a new microsite and then doing nothing to market it. Backlinks will not generate themselves. If people do not know that a site exists, then they will never link to it. And a site will not have good rankings if it has zero backlinks to start with. Initially, traffic will have to be generated either through PPC or other forms of marketing (possibly some links from the parent domain) before 3rd party links can develop naturally and improve the microsite's organic rankings.

Creating a microsite to support a parent domain can help you to tap into a theme that your main site would otherwise be unable to rank for, both by increased backlinks and better optimized content. A site that is overly generic, or based on a dissimilar theme, may have a difficult time generating links and ranking for niche terms because it will be up against other sites that are centralized around that theme. Therefore, unless your theme coincides well with the theme of your intended addition, a microsite is definitely worth looking into.

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