Microsites for Local SEO: the Pros and Cons

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Some business owners think the best way to rank in many cities in the local search is to have many websites.  That’s a losing strategy.

They build microsites – by which I mean a bunch of small, usually almost identical sites with names like:

            PlumbingCompanyCambridge.com

            PlumbingCompanySomerville.com

            PlumbingCompanyWatertown.com

            PlumbingCompanyMalden.com

            PlumbingCompanyCharlestown.com

            PlumbingCompanyWinthrop.com

            PlumbingCompanyLynn.com

            PlumbingCompanyChelsea.com

            PlumbingCompanyRevere.com

There are two main scenarios where business owners feel tempted to use microsites:

Scenario 1.  They’ve got a single-location business that serves customers in a wide area – like within a 50-mile radius.  They know they probably can’t get visible in Google Places across that much terrain, so they want to pick up organic rankings in all those neighboring towns.

Scenario 2.  They’ve got several locations – using addresses that Google considers legitimate – and want each Google Places page to lead to a website that has the city in the domain name.

Microsites are a bad wager in both situations.  (They’re even a dumb move for ecommerce.)

That’s not to say some businesses don’t grab some OK local visibility with them – and maybe even some customers.  But it’s relative: I can’t think of a situation when those businesses wouldn’t be better off using fewer sites.

Here’s my assessment of using microsites for local SEO:

Pros

  • You can stuff the same city name into every greasy little crevice of the site, including the domain name.

 

Cons

  • You’re spreading your content thin.  Let’s say you have 8 sites and you bust your hump to create great info.  Either you kinda-sorta help 8 sites, or you give them all boilerplate content, or one site gets all the benefit.  Your desire to build good sites is caught between Scylla and Charybdis.
  • It’s a similar challenge with any links you earn.  (Not that you can create a bunch of sites with identical link profiles, unless they’re garbage links.)  You’ll have multiple sites with mediocre link profiles, rather than one strong lineup.
  • Even if all your sites saw an equally good boost from the content and links, you can’t help but imagine how much one site (or even a couple) would have benefited.
  • If you only have one location it’s hard to figure out which site – if any – should get a crack at Google Places.  Let’s say you’ve got 10 microsites.  That probably doesn’t correspond to 10 physical locations or separately registered businesses.  It’s more likely you’ve got just one location, in which case Google insists you can only have one Google listing.  (Although there are a few exceptions).
  • If you only have one location, you’ll be able to put your address info – an important ranking factor – on only one of the sites.
  • If you do have multiple locations, there is no good reason you can’t just have location-specific landing pages.
  • It’s easy to overdo the interlinking between your sites.  You’ll always be tempted to add one more keyword-rich link from one keyword-rich URL to another.  That’s a bad idea because…wait, quiet…I think I can hear Penguins waddling over to you.
  • Higher costs: More domain names, hosting, and development expenses.  That also makes you more likely to skimp on important investments – like help with local SEO, which you may need bad.
  • It’s harder to manage all the sites.  If you make a mistake, chances are you’ll end up needing to fix it 8 or 9 or 10 times.  Sometimes pain has a purpose.  Then there are those times you step on a Lego.
  • You’re probably creating a bad user-experience.  Your content likely will be thin.  Or you’ve “geotargeted” your content with cutting-edge techniques like repeating 15 times on the page that your company is the leading “plumbers Dallas TX.”  Would-be customers will know you’re just paying their city or town lip-service.
  • It’s harder to tell people you talk with offline which website to check out.
  • Are you really going to have 7 Facebook pages, 7 Twitter handles, 7 Google+ pages, etc. – that you don’t simply build, but also develop?
  • What if you already have one “main” site that all your customers are used to going to?
  • With nothing to differentiate your site other than a possible small advantage in the name, you’re one Google algorithm update away from the fiery pits of page 37.

My rule is simple: Have as few sites as possible.

Even if you think that number will end up being more than a handful of sites, figure out your exact reasons for having that many sites.  If your reasons begin with “Because Google…” then you’re probably headed for trouble sooner or later.

Ideally you have one site that you grow into a beast, through focus and sustained effort.

But however many sites you have, you’ll get out of them exactly what you put into them.

What’s been your experience with microsites?  Anything you want to say in favor of them?  Leave a comment!

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Comments

  1. “It’s easy to overdo the interlinking between your sites. You’ll always be tempted to add one more keyword-rich link from one keyword-rich URL to another. That’s a bad idea because…wait, quiet…I think I can hear Penguins waddling over to you.”

    This is one of the most common things I see when doing competitive analysis. The competitor usually has one keyword rich microsite with 50-75 exact anchor links to the brand site. Those penguins aren’t waddling fast enough. ;)

    • Well-put, Blake. With 50-75 exact-match links, you can expect to see Matt Cutts riding over to you on the back of a giant Minotaur-like penguin-panda hybrid beast :)

  2. lawlz!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w29PG-8Tywo

    Replace drugs with spammy links ;)

  3. I also don’t recommend doing micorsites to spam local for many of the reasons you mentioned. I see some client competitors doing it and just think it is a waste of time- time spent ceating a great site or trying to get reviews. You can always advertise on tough to get searches. Then you have a great user experience for the close. People seem to forget that there is more to it than just getting to page 1. If your site sucks the visitor will not convert.

    • That’s the biggest issue of all, I agree. Thanks, Kristinn. Business owners and their SEOs need to care about what happens after the click (if it happens at all).

  4. Phil,

    Well stated! yet so many local companies are applying all this effort and soon to have many headaches.

  5. avatar Michael Klasno says:

    OK, on a serous note.

    What about a generic general contractor who has lots of services and wants to highlight one in particular, say “solar panel Installation.” If the object of the microsite is NOT local SEO but overall education and gathering of potential customers for that service by using potential search terms. Would your advice still be the same? is there a happy medium? Are microsites always a bad idea.

    Also how about long tail search terms as urls such as “Your City Solar Panel Installation” landing on a microsite built as a push site to the main business, again to gather potential customers.

    Thanks for all the great articles.

    • I’d probably just have a subpage – or several of them – on the “main” site.

      If you must have the solar panel installation service reside all by its lonesome on a separate domain, at least have there be just one site for solar panels.

  6. Phil,
    Good analysis, and what you are saying is true, but you are taking a narrow perspective. Mini-sites can be quite effective when used to compliment – not compete – with the main site. Using your example, if a plumber wants to do a promotion – let’s say a 25% discount, here are the benefits in using a mini-site:
    1. Extensive content on the sale that may not be suitable for the normal site
    2. Elevation of the sale in importance to customers and prospects
    3. Legitimate linking from – and to both sites
    4. Easier to promote on and off the internet – eg the sale now becomes an ‘event’
    Large enterprises use mini-sites all the time for these reasons and more. Yes, there is an expense – but modest compared with the potential benefits.

    • Thanks for your compliments, Richard. But that’s pie-in-the-sky thinking. People who do microsites don’t create “extensive” content. Links from a one-horse little site aren’t going to help the “main” site.

      I agree that there can be a benefit to microsites for offline promotion – like your example of a 25%-off sale. But for ranking in a competitive niche? Even if the site somehow ranks, you’re still taking people to a lousy little squeeze site.

  7. Hi Phil,

    I must admit I’ve had a very different experience building microsites. We’ve found them to be extremely cost effective and they have proven to deliver a high ROI for our clients. I agree that they shouldn’t be built in bulk (8 or 9 websites is a lot to manage) and that a branded parent website should be maintained, however, microsites using exact match URLs work exceptionally well and are an opportunity to make up ground quickly in competitive local niches.

    Additionally, microsites, when designed, developed and branded correctly can provide a much more positive user experience, i believe. Consider a company with multiple service lines that are related but not complementary such as the services offered by a criminal lawyer. I would much rather visit a website that targets a section of criminal law (drugs, impaired driving, ect) than a website that discusses criminal law at a high level with thin service pages.

    Lastly, with the negligible fees associated with building a WordPress site, it has significantly reduced the barrier to entry in having a professional “trustworthy” website design.

    Just my two cents.

    • Thanks, Calin. I agree microsites have their place in the world. But spreading your content, links, time, and UX thin is a real problem. So my money is always on the big site that takes a while to build up, but that eventually squashes the little sites.

      • It’s an interesting discussion. While I am a proponent of UX, what’s to say you can’t have both. A parent website that features a blog and all the tasty content, and a small collection of microsites built upon WP templates and exact match domains. In most cases these microsites are more attractive and easier to navigate than custom website designs and they’re inexpensive to build. Not to mention they get straight to the point, which works extremely well for transactional businesses.

        When discussing resources, especially link equity, I would suggest the easy links (the low hanging fruit of the industry) are all that are required to have the websites ranking highly in a short amount of time. We see it happen over and over again. Highly authoritative links are rarely needed to outrank even established websites if an exact match domain is used. The same cannot be said for branded URLs.

        • @Calin

          I see what you mean. But one UX problem inherent in microsites is to take people to a new site. It’s usually disconcerting.

          There’s also the big question of how to get those microsites to rank in the first place. Let’s assume there is a small-to-medium rankings advantage in having an EMD and rubbing the city name into every pore of the site. Then let’s say that in some cases that’s not enough to get you to rank. Then what?

  8. for clarification, the long tail urls would have a few (3 maybe) links to the main services page on the main website, AND no black hat, clean, well written content. if done correctly shouldn’t it benefit? could it be detrimental?

  9. Great topic as usual Phil, just wanted to add that we are having very good results by making minor alterations and using multiple videos instead of individual websites to target location specific keyword terms.
    There are some tricks and tweaks, but so far we have over 85% in top 4 positions page 1 in over 40 different locations….even after G’s last very recent YouTube “adjustment.”
    Thanks and Have A Great Day!

  10. Great article as always Phil – and interesting comments too. Phil, I agree with you that effort is much better expended on the online reputation rather than weak multiple sites. It’s what people say about you that’s important now – to customers and Google – not what you say about you. The secret sauce is making it easy for genuine customers to give genuine reviews.

    • Very true, Angela. Thanks for stopping by.

      That’s a great point: that it’s hard to grow your reputation if you don’t have one reputation.

  11. If there is anything that has become clear over the past year regarding the future (present?) relevancy factors in local search, it has to be “content is king”. And spammy content is the court jester. As you point out Phil, all of that time and energy required to keep microsites fresh and relevant could be used in so many other lasting endeavors, both online and offline.

    No doubt microsites have offered some significant advantages in the past. And, could still offer advantages now in certain scenarios. But if the intent is to “game” Google, it is only a matter of time until the Penguin comes calling.

  12. avatar Rob La Montagne says:

    Phil,

    What about an offsite, branded blog. I have a client I am working with as their content manager…they are working with a local SEO company who insists on creating blogger.com blogs for our manufacturing clients vs. putting a real blog on the main site. The sites use exact match wording in their titles for certain keywords. They say its “…because google” indexes all the posts immediately which they link to the main site. My contention is that it is a waste of time and actually will create negligible results….and dilutes the content…which is already hard enough to get out of the companies. What say you?

    • @Rob

      There are problems with the strategy you describe, but I wouldn’t consider it a problem of (mis)using microsites; the offsite blog isn’t a microsite.

      • Thanks for the feedback fill. Yeah, I know its not the same as s microsite but they are sort of using it that way with the targeting of a particular keyword in the title and subsequent content. Thought some of the same rules apply…diluting the content in 2 places….so there are other problems too, you say. Thought as much.

  13. One Plumber website with a single location but serving a variety of cities in CT can be seen here http://advanceplumbingheating.com/ If you check out the towns listed near the bottom of the page, while there is no physical location they have historically ranked. They used to own all those towns in Places and organic, but their effectiveness seems to be wearing thin.

  14. Phil, many thanks for stirring up a great conversation.

    My brick-and-mortar business is in a Metro Area where we service about 25 cities within a 60 mile radius. We have had great success in using location-based YouTube videos to drive traffic to location-based landing pages on an authority site. In many cases, both the video and the page will rank well organically … so the customer gets the information they’re looking for … and we usually get the know-like-trust relationship and the lead. We truly “lucked out” by having a hunch on this long ago — way before G+.

    I can’t imagine trying to rank 25 microsites when it’s so much easier and more effective to develop an authority site AND a YouTube Channel that will be a PR5 in no time …

    And Phil, I truly appreciate what you do for all of us. The content you share is just amazing!

    • Hey Bill, thanks for your compliments. And for the first-hand tale.

      Most people who use microsites are looking for a shortcut. But those are dwindling. Slow is the new fast.

  15. I agree emd and creating multiple sites is a tough way to do business I know skinned my knees more then once now everything is abut building brand and a branded website is a friend of Google
    Here is a word press plugin that can do what you want without all the crazy insane site to site linking.

    Bulk City Landing Pages will create as many geo targeted pages you want go to wikipedia and get the list you are targeting you do have to create content for each page so every page is not the same but if your site is set up correctly and your silos are done right and on page is done well you will rank for all these cities without the plug in.

  16. While I build large auth-sites, I still use EMD micro-sites for client, a lot. I operate a tad differently I suppose. My micro-sites start out small – a 7 page’r with a hefty front end on its own hosting. These EMDs then have a simple text link back to the inner page of the main site… which is of course on another server as close to the client as possible. To note – I usually start small with 10 EMD’s, as my time with the client progresses, I pick up more cities along the way and build.

    While these EMD’s rank ok in Google, they command Yahoo/Bing easily and are almost always top page for that keyterm. Often I can catch 1-3 site links on the first search page. I leave no address in the footer which matches the main site, only the city, state zip for the EMD. I even go so far as to use a rc/skype line for the phone – sometimes no phone at all – depends on the budget (that makes me sound dirty?). Each EMD gets it’s own social accounts where I do use a plugin (Nextscripts SNAP Pro) to send updates. To make things easier, I also use IWP-Client plugin to manage WP updates – a fantastic tool for WP.

    “7 Steps To Hell”
    Step 1. I start at City-data where I gather the names of the towns and/or counties with the largest populations – nothing under 50k population unless I have to.
    Step 2. locate a list of emd’s for that city/county and niche – buy them all. A whopping $9.53 investment per city..
    Step 3. This is where the spreadsheet comes in handy. I pick up hosting and ensure I’m not on the same IP or datacenter. So yes, there may be 15 hosting accounts by the time I’m done – but think of advertising costs the other way. EMD $10, Hosting $50. So max, $60 for the year works out to be $5 per month (without a phone line). Ok – TBH, you’d also have to figure in my costs per miniblog. but…
    Step 4. build up the EMD design, make it responsive, heavy duty front page good inner pages, quality content – roughly 6-7 pages +.
    Step 5. Build the social accounts and citations.
    Step 6. Wait ## days and link to the main sites inner page depicting the city you want to control – never to the root. These micro-mini-blogs then start to become larger sites as time progresses and often bring my clients business via Yahoo / Bing. Yes, those SE’s are viable too -
    Step 7 – continue to create content for each site per week which in turn punches up the sitemap and social feed.

    All this while keeping their brand intact. Yeah, its grunt work. Yes, it can be expensive. Yes, there is a huge spreadsheet I track and update. Yes I write and create a lot of content per month. Yes I create multiple citations per city. Yes it’s hard work and thankfully I know where to find freelancers… but my clients are always #1-2 on the page and usually #1 on the 7-pack for their kw and the ROI is through the roof.

    I admit creating these 2nd tier sites is grunt work, but my clients pay on time and can see the progress. Content is King. Code is Poetry. Cheers and please don’t forget about Yahoo/Bing. Flame-on….

    • Thanks, Nick. It sounds like you do the microsite/EMD tactic as well as can be done.

    • Nick does sound like a plan some SEO’s are using and if your mircrosites provide targeted info-not spammy then sounds interesting. Wouldn’t short videos perhaps work as well, see other commenter? I’ve even see like 30 sec vids basically a “commercial’ for an SEO ranking well-when it’s no content, kindof annoying as I”m actually trying ot do content based videos to rank well.

  17. I think we’re all against this strategy at this point – what about creating a specific page for different locations? In some cases it seems to make sense (when different locations are far apart and can have unique content for each one), but where is that line of demarcation? Only create separate pages if you’re operating a different location and hope Google does a good job of figuring out the service area?

    • A page for each location is fine – certainly in my book:

      http://www.localvisibilitysystem.com/2013/04/30/16-ways-to-create-unique-local-content-for-cities-where-you-want-to-rank/

      A page for each city you serve – where you may not be located – is more slippery. My general suggestion is not to create a page for a city if you can’t think of something to say about your business’s “relationship” to that city (see above link).

    • ..pardon… but if you sit and “hope” Google figures out if you’re right for the area (7Pack, position 1-3 etc eta al), it will likely not happen without some type of effort telling the world you exist. If you think of a page as an extension of the site; hypothetically lets say a mobile locksmith. The mobile locksmith, stops his van on a busy highway and “hopes” someone stops and needs keys cut. That won’t work… See… so while it is a very good idea to create pages that determine the city within which you’ll do business, or are licensed, you still need to advertise to the world you exist. I like EMDs…

      How I see things – Squidoo your pages. Think of every page like a Squidoo lens. Keeping in mind that every page has to stand alone if every other page was deleted. Even my Contact pages are informational.
      So you incorporate what your readers want to know about you, for that city or place within which you’ll operate. Each page having quality content, a video, images depicting same, more content, phone numbers, license numbers, links from Angies, POI directories, Thumbtack (etc) and of course a link or two to a high PR site which boasts quality info of which you spake.

      As for the strategy of micro-blogging EMD’s. I don’t suggest you do it. I don’t like competition. Cheers and flame on…

      • This isn’t about EMDs. It’s about how many times you’re willing to divide up your content, links, and time, and what you get in exchange. In some cases it’s a roughly equal trade-off. In most cases it’s not.

  18. I am going to stop the madness on creating microsites Google likes branded authority sites set up your site structure correctly and do all your on page SEO correctly ,keyword research correctly and get high authority backlinks to your site you will rank for multiple cite,mulitple keywords in your geo targeted area.,
    This is how you win for local search and everything else related to search online become the authority in your niche….One other Key point create a 5 star reputation be the industry leader and have the great reviews to back this up market your reviews and your business is a winner just by the fact other people say so….

  19. We do well with microsites. They aren’t that hard to build and perhaps the content is thin but if it ranks well because it is exact domain match, the client is happy and getting calls, all is well.

    It’s not the answer to everything, and yes you have to put more effort into creating content. But seriously have you seen how the simplest of pages can rank?

    This is a great topic and I love the comments. Got some new squirrels to hunt.

    • Oh, I’ve seen how the simplest pages can rank. I’ve done it myself before. But to say all’s well if the client is “happy and getting calls” is a big “if,” for the reasons I’ve described. It’s also hard to say whether it will work over the long-term.

      Plus, even the simplest of pages on a big, authority site can rank well. One thing we haven’t discussed is building up one site that you’ll be using long-term, and using microsites in the meantime. I can see that.

      • Microsites often work, and you are doing a disservice by insisting otherwise.
        New business does not come from a high ranking. It comes when prospects see a difference – and benefit – in one service over the others.
        Microsites provide that opportunity, and when you write:
        “People who do Microsites don’t create “extensive” content”
        Are you including Nike, GM, Office Depot, and countless others who regularly use them?
        Microsites have many uses, and the fact that so many commentators – like yourself – do not understand why – increases their strategic value.
        Just my opinion…of course.

        • I’ve used both and seen others use both types of sites, Richard. If you’ve read the comment thread you’ll notice that I say microsites do have their place in the world. You, on the other hand, seem unwilling to acknowledge their serious drawbacks.

  20. Great read Phil, and I guess I bit too controversial judging by the comments :)

    I just wanted to add to your cons list the fact that if the webmaster was not cautious enough and had all those microsites set under the same account – those could be easily traced and detected by Google and categorized as “quick case sites” (http://www.seroundtable.com/google-other-sites-penalty-18228.html) which I doubt would be really beneficial to the business in the long run.
    Furthermore the EMD might seem to work for certain businesses, but having low competition within the given area and market niche is another contributing factor that could interfere with the results.

    EMD has been an issue that has fallen under Google’s radar for quite a while now and it hardly contributes as much to one’s rankings as it once did. In this regard in one of his videos Matt shares that Google is lowering the value of keywords in the domain name (“the weights that we give to keyword domains”) by explaining that “adjusting that mix a little bit and sort of turning the knob down within the algorithm, so that given two different domains it wouldn’t necessarily help you as much to have a domain with a bunch of keywords in it.”

  21. Well I have used “micro sites” for different languages, but building micro sites just to rank in different areas is wrong. Thanks

  22. I am assuming that micro sites are different than landing pages that will capture emails for a “special report” or E-book you offer. Is there a difference?

    • Yes, microsites are different: They’re on different website names. Having landing pages on your “main” site is totally fine (and smart in many cases). The question is how many domains you’re dividing your efforts by.

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