If you’ve spent any time on the web, you’ve likely heard the term microsite tossed around, and you may be wondering whether your organization’s web presence would benefit from a microsite or two, or more.
Trends in web design and development, like the continued focus on single-tasking, increasing UX standards, and user frustration with slow sites, all indicate that microsites will continue to be a viable business option.
In this article, we look at the case for microsites – why you might want to use them, when they’re a good idea, and how to overcome some of the common challenges that are associated with them.
Why You Might Want a Microsite
First, what’s a microsite?
A microsite is a small group of pages with a unique address and links. It usually acts as a subdivision of a larger online entity.
A microsite can be a unique domain (e.g. microsite.com), a sub-domain (e.g. microsite.domain.com) or a directory of an existing site (e.g. domain.com/microsite).
Typically, a microsite will feature in-depth content about a specific product, service, event, idea or thing.
Essentially, microsites are tiny websites that will usually only serve one purpose. For example, Scotiabank runs a microsite for its mobile banking. It doesn’t have all the various products and pages of the main website, but it lets you complete tasks that you want to do on the go, like transfer money or check your balance.
Scotiabank mobile microsite
And therein lies the brilliance of microsites – companies are no longer burdened with a huge list of requirements of what needs to be included on the site. That can be very helpful, especially for a large company.
Microsites can allow a large business to focus solely on what the user wants, sidestepping what might be legal or business necessities.
Microsites also give businesses a way to direct specific users to specific sites, built for their specific needs. Mobile banking users, for instance, likely don’t require access to legal documents about trademarks and subsidiaries. They do, however, need to be able to easily log in and check their balance.
The other major reason that microsites can be a good digital investment is that user flows of microsites can be significantly simplified. Because microsites have a narrowed focus, only designed to attract and appeal to users who want those specific things. This creates a much more positive experience for those users.
The Pros of Using microsites
This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are a few examples of ways that deploying a microsite can improve your business’ web presence.
The biggest ‘pro’ of developing a microsite is the ability to communicate a specific and targeted message to sell a product or service. With unique branding, URL structure and content, a microsite can easily act as a standalone site that is free from associations with its related larger entity.
Though a new domain may not have the established SEO authority as your existing site, new pages that are keyword-rich for your targeted terms will draw more qualified traffic to the new site.
Though you can easily track the traffic, goals and success rate of pages or campaigns in your standard Google Analytics profile, by creating a new site profile under the same account you’re able to create more specific goals and custom segmentation that are tailored to your new microsite. It’s also easier to navigate your analytics when each property has its own dedicated profile and interface.
The Cons of Using Microsites
In some cases, using a microsite to spin-off a product, brand or service can be confusing to site visitors who are already familiar with the parent organization, which can be a counterintuitive activity when the microsite was intended to be a brand-building exercise.
In an evaluation of Microsoft’s use of microsites from a security perspective, SOPHOS’ Rich Baldry commented:
The brief lines of text provided in search engine results make it hard enough for us to identify good sites from bad ones. When special-purpose domains for campaign microsites appear, it becomes even more confusing. At best, people might ignore the microsite domain, keeping themselves safe but making the marketing dollars a waste. At worst, the protection and reputation offered by use of known domains is lost and people end up infected the next time they follow an unknown domain.
In summary, for an organization like Microsoft that has lots of brand equity, an off-brand microsite could just confuse potential visitors and turn them away. Though the same couldn’t be said if the business were not as well known as Microsoft, for instance.
Lack of Information
Depending on the content structure of the new microsite, visitors may find the information to be too sparse, they may even navigate back to your main site in order to get the full information they’re looking for. In this case, the microsite is a hurdle for users and may hurt the overall experience they have with your brand.
When Microsites Are a Good Idea
Microsites really work best in a few specific situations.
You’re always going to need a parent site for users who don’t know what they’re looking for, as a place for all the small details that are not appropriate on a microsite, and as a place to store major content.
To continue with our earlier example, Scotiabank has a number of things on their website that are inappropriate on a microsite. So microsites shouldn’t be considered a replacement for a main website, but simply an additional digital tool to complement the primary site. Here’s when they’re best deployed:
Marketing new product lines or brands
Microsites are a fantastic place to bring new products to market.
For instance, Bulmers built a microsite in order to launch a new range of flavoured ciders.
This strategy allows companies (especially very large ones) to dedicate space for a new product in a way that would not be possible on the main site. What’s more, it means that branding can be a little more flexible, establishing the product’s brand without compromising the overarching parent company’s brand.
The result is a strong product brand, with little negative impact on the parent.
Discrete mobile sites
Discrete mobile sites fell out of fashion for a while with responsive web design presenting a more streamlined and cost-effective alternative, but we think they still can play a valuable role in an organization’s web strategy.
However, now we see dedicated mobile sites less as a total mobile solution and more as an alternative to app development: really good on a phone for accomplishing small jobs quickly, particularly when traffic from a phone has very different needs to traffic from a desktop.
Best Practices for Creating Microsites for Your Business
There are many different ways to go about creating an online network of microsites to expand your web presence, but in general the following tips are considered best practices:
1. Avoid Content Duplication
Google frowns upon what it considers to be ‘duplicate content’, so be sure not to simply copy and paste content from your main site in order to populate your microsite. It will end up having a negative effect on your SEO, potentially for both your microsite as well as your main site. Ensure the content is unique to your message, and if necessary, remove the content from your main site and point a link to where the information now resides on your microsite.
2. Don’t Overdo it with Backlinks
Some microsites appear to be set up specifically to link visitors back to the main site, in an attempt to game the SEO system. Not only does this provide a poor user experience for your site visitors, but the search engines eventually catch on and could hit your site(s) with a penalty.
3. Make Management Efficient
If you’re going to be managing multiple web properties, it makes sense to build them on a content management system that makes it easy and efficient for updates across all of your sites. A platform like Advantage CMS with multi-site publishing makes it easy to control which content is disseminated to each site, and it means you don’t have to continuously log-out and log-in to see the information you want.
4. Select the right URL Structure and Navigation
One of the most critical factors in determining a microsite’s success is its usability and the findability of information, so it’s very important to select the right URL structure and navigation for your new site. If you’re looking to maintain the brand value of the parent site, a subdomain (microsite.domain.com) or directory (domain.com/microsite) would be best. If you’re looking to build the brand of a new entity, a new domain (microsite.com) would be the best option.
Ultimately, microsites can provide a great option for webmasters to diversify their web presence, and give site users an experience better suited to address their needs. Have you had a situation where implementing a microsite has had a beneficial or negative effect on your web presence? Let us know in the comments.
Common challenges (and solutions)
Even a cursory glance around the internet shows that there is definitely another side to the microsite debate.
Microsites are often lambasted for two things: being bad for SEO and being expensive to manage. Don’t believe the hype.
Yes, microsites can be executed poorly and have negative effects on a brand, and potentially be a costly expense for a business to manage. But done well, these problems fade away.
Myth 1: microsites are terrible for SEO
The argument is that microsites take time to build authority and, once established, pull traffic away from the parent site. And since Google only cares about the bottom line on traffic and links, you’re better off putting all your resources into making one website great.
However, that’s not as accurate as you might think.
For starters, some microsites are only built to appeal to a select group of users, who presumably will be searching for keywords related to that unique product or service anyways. So it’s not as relevant that a microsite’s overall search ranking isn’t as good – long tail and brand keyword optimization will mean that it’s there when people want it.
Second, while a microsite may draw some traffic from your main site and have a detrimental effect on your position in search results, any negative impact to your bottom line is likely to be offset by the quality of traffic your microsite is getting.
All in all, we think that while microsites might not be great for SEO, they’re certainly not bad.
Myth 2: microsites are resource sinks
The common challenge is that running a microsite requires the web team to maintain two full websites, which can get expensive in both time and resources. However, it’s often not as bad as you might think.
With the right content management system, managing a microsite’s content can be done from the same back-end as the main site, meaning very little additional time required by the web team for content updates and maintenance.
To wrap up, microsites can be a fantastic tool for businesses; they are an easy way to provide a great experience to a niche user group, or to launch a new brand, product or campaign. And despite the hype saying otherwise, from our experience, there are few downsides.