Microsites: Effective Marketing or Bad Idea?

By Denise Goluboff | Senior Web Strategist

As Google’s search algorithm has evolved to emphasize trusted, well-established domains and unique content, the debate is heating up on the marketing value of microsites. Some experts believe that creating a microsite is never a good idea, diluting the brand and hurting coveted search results, while others think they still have a place in a targeted, strategic marketing campaign.

A microsite is loosely defined as a small cluster of web pages that are differentiated from a parent website through unique design and layout, limited navigation options, and a unique domain URL to set the site apart from the parent domain. Many companies have implemented microsites to promote specialized, short-term offers, product launches, or wholly new segments to their target audiences.

We’ve put together some practical guidelines on when to use -- or avoid -- a microsite strategy for your business.

Don’t Build a Microsite to Improve Search Rankings

Ever since Google began cracking down on link farms and giving more prominence to well-established domain names with numerous backlinks and unique content, the argument that a microsite can help you show up higher on search engines has fallen flat. Google’s focus on unique content, domain age, and backlinks are an effort to include metrics such as trust and relevancy in their rankings.

A microsite can hurt your SEO for the following reasons:

  1. Microsites that live on a separate domain than your main website will not share any of the “domain credit” that Google gives your primary website. Google sees the microsite URL as a wholly new website, forcing you to build up its search value with new backlinks and content updates, which can take time and resources that are better spent improving your main site.
  2. If microsites have identical content to any pages on your primary site, Google will not regard it as unique content, resulting in low ranking . All microsite content must be unique, fresh and updated often for good rankings. Simply put: there are no shortcuts for good SEO.
  3. If you are targeting the same keywords in your microsite as you are in your main site, you’re simply splitting your resources and your sites are competing with each other for rankings. You’ll be spending double the time and resources required to achieve high search rankings, and competing against yourself. Don’t do it.

If you manage to climb the natural search mountain and achieve high listings on Google for your microsite, ensure that you’re ready to maintain and update it for the long haul. Short-term microsites that are scheduled to go dark after a set period of time don’t do you any good in search, because once they’re turned off they become broken links on the search listings.

Don’t Build a Digital Band-Aid

Imagine that your existing website is outdated, messy and hard to use. But the idea of starting over – rebuilding the site’s architecture, design and content flow – is just too overwhelming, not to mention the budget you’ll need to pull it off. You may be tempted to consider a microsite as a quick fix to this challenge. A small number of newly-designed pages, free of the confines of your existing, hard-to-navigate site, can be very tempting because it’s limited in its scope.

Avoid the temptation to remedy an outdated site with this digital band-aid. Here’s why:

  1. As mentioned above, Google places value on older domains and existing backlinks, so investing in your main site is paramount for good SEO. You’re just making more work for yourself when you reinvent your existing site in a microsite’s new wrapper.
  2. From a branding standpoint, it’s never good to look scattered to your target audience. Having two separate sites to address the same users can be confusing and doesn’t present your brand as organized, strategic or focused.

If you’re already too resource-strapped to maintain a great user experience on your existing site, the same can probably be said for a microsite. Though it may be limited in scope, a microsite still requires time and resources to plan, build, and most important, to maintain and keep fresh. That’s time better spent improving your main site if you really want to see a return on your web investment.

It’s also worth noting that microsites that are linked to from your main site can cause what we at TREW like to call “digital whiplash”. Web visitors on your site have the expectation that as they navigate your content, they will stay within the structure and feel of your site. If they click on a link that suddenly delivers them to an new site with an entirely different navigation, with no easy way to get back to where they were, it can be disorienting. If the visitor feels lost, they’re less likely to remain on your site or come back.

So, when are microsites a good idea?

As a Short-term Promotional Vehicle

If you’re planning a quick promotional campaign that doesn’t easily fit into your existing site, and you want to limit your web visitor’s experience to emphasize your campaign message, a microsite can offer:

  1. A focused, clean, task-based user experience
  2. No risk of distracting the web visitor away from the desired task, because the corporate site content is not accessible
  3. Specific metrics tied directly to your campaign, because your web analytics are separate from your corporate site

Quanser Academics, a leader in the development of real-time control design systems for academic research and teaching, wanted to increase adoption of their products among university teaching staff throughout North America. They developed a short-term campaign promoting a free inverted pendulum to professors who purchased a workstation for a limited time.

With TREW’s help, Quanser developed a specialized microsite, as well as a targeted direct marketing push to promote the sale and the microsite. The focus was not on SEO or long-term gains, but on specific sales goals within a limited period of time.

Quanser's Microsite
Quanser's Microsite
 

Because the Quanser campaign had a specific goal of compelling professors to purchase specific products, the microsite provided a more seamless experience than the Quanser parent site, because it only offered links to those product options, and didn’t distract web visitors with ancillary content.

One additional note on the short-term microsite approach: Be sure to develop a redirect strategy when the site is taken down. It should address where the links to the microsite will go, and you should ensure that your IT staff create 301 redirects when the site goes dark.

As a Vehicle to Establish a Wholly New Segment or Product Area

If your company is planning to launch a new business segment or product offering that stretches beyond your typical target audience, you may discover that fitting it into your existing website is like the proverbial square peg in a round hole. When your site is clean and usable, performs well and has a logical site structure, adding a completely different segment to the web mix can prove to be a real challenge, especially if you want to make a big splash.

A microsite can be a good approach if:

  1. You’re marketing the new product/segment to a target audience that your corporate site doesn’t address directly. A microsite allows you to speak directly to the target audience with industry-specific vocabulary and build credibility immediately.
  2. Your new product/segment is innovative and very new, and the design and navigation needs can’t be addressed in your corporate site’s design templates.
  3. The new segment must distinguish itself from the corporate site because it’s approach, strategy or focus are so different and new for the company.

When Nissan decided to introduce their new electric car, the Leaf, they wanted the innovation and cutting edge technology of their product to be evident in their web promotion of the car. Taking a microsite approach afforded Nissan that freedom. The navigation and design of the Leaf web pages are like no other product page on the Nissan site. And since this is a long-term microsite, Nissan built it into their existing site architecture, ensuring that the Leaf web pages enjoy the SEO benefits of the Nissan.com domain.

Nissan Leaf Microsite
The Nissan Leaf Microsite
 

TREW client Bloomy Energy Systems recently launched as a new division of Bloomy Controls, who provides automated test, data acquisition and control systems for product development in industries such as aerospace, automotive and consumer electronics. Because the new energy division at Bloomy targets the energy storage techonology audience, with very specific vocabulary and product needs, the company wanted to approach their marketing strategy with this in mind.

TREW built a microsite for Bloomy Energy Systems that is completely focused on energy storage needs and solutions. The microsite approach gave Bloomy the ability to offer a clean, industry-specific experience for their energy storage audience, a segment that doesn’t easily fit into corporate site’s structure and focus. In addition, the Bloomy corporate site is still able to address the full range of solutions and industries it always has.

Bloomy Energy Microsite

The Bloomy Microsite

 Final Thoughts

A microsite can be a smart approach for specific campaigns and product introductions. It is not appropriate as a short-cut for SEO or to skirt poor performance on your main website. It can provide a truly seamless, easy-to-navigate, task-based approach to your target audience. And that’s a customer experience that’s worth the effort.

Ready to get started on your website project? Contact TREW Marketing to get started today.

Looking for additional insight? Check out our checklist: A 15-Point Checklist to Evaluate Your B2B Technical Website

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Denise Goluboff

Senior Web Strategist

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