Should we run one website or many for our various business interests?
If you manage a business with a few distinctly different major products or services, or if the company is structured less like a single entity and more like a group of specialised commercial concerns, you might wonder if it is best to operate a single large website under one domain-name, or various individual websites, each with separate domains or sub-domains.
The bottom-line is that a single site should be simpler and therefore cheaper to host and manage, but multiple websites allow you to better focus your marketing, branding and SEO efforts. This article looks at the pros and cons of each approach to help you make the right decision.
It is worth mentioning that when referring to multiple websites, it is expected that each is linked by a common header element which encourages visitors to click through to the other sites if they might be interested. At Sinclair Design we either use a 'tab' metaphor along the top of every page on each site for this purpose (example shown in side-column - click/tap the image to see the site), or we use simple link-words in a header bar. Thus any visitor to any of the sites can jump to any other of the grouped sites in a single click from any page. It is also expected that the overall presentational style of each site has some common design cues such that even with different logos and content, there is still some obvious visual consistency between each site.
To focus, or not, that is the question!
With regards to visual branding or 'identity' considerations, a single website will probably need to take a 'safe', relatively bland approach to its branding and visual communication efforts because it needs to encompass every product or service, and needs to appeal on some level to every target audience group of every business concern. Whilst this might be fine if all the services or products are aimed at essentially the same target audience group in terms of age, interests and socio-economic classification, it reduces potential visitor-engagement if one product or service is aimed at teenagers, and the other targets retirees, for example.
If you have three or four product or company logos that have each been skilfully designed to appeal to the intended target-audience for each product, service or company, then it follows that it is likely to be more effective communications-wise, if the website visitor sees that logo and/or branding system, theme or styling front-and-centre to every page that they visit.
For example, if a visitor is looking for new car wheels and follows a link to a website for a parts firm called 'Smiths Auto Parts', with a generalised engineering-themed logo and graphics, even if the page they land on has a picture of car wheels, are they as likely to be as instantly engaged with the product as if they had landed on a page with a top logo of 'Smart Wheels' featuring an image of sparkling alloys? Probably not, and that's a major downside of losing focus for your branding.
Similarly, which URL link in the search engine listings is likely to look more promising to a prospective customer: smithsautoparts.com or smartwheels.com? Oh were it just this simple though, for what good is a fabulous website if it doesn't get seen in people's search results ...which is why SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) focus considerations are arguably even more important than the branding issues.
How will Google look at each option?
Before we even start to discus this question, let's get something clear: nobody outside of Google knows for sure how Google ranks sites. Google is understandably highly secretive about the way it returns search results, because every man and his digital dog wants to try and leverage those techniques for their own advantage. Why, we're even doing just that by exploring these techniques here in this article. We can get occasional insights into Google's way of thinking through Google engineer Matt Cutts' blog, and we can second-guess how those important algorithms work if we are software engineers ourselves, but other than that we have to work things out by trial and error, testing, and real-world analysis of results. So if anyone ever claims that Google specifically does this or that, treat that opinion with a large pinch of salt. So, having got that out of the way, here's some non-specific advice based on plenty of experience.
The pros and cons of running separate sites from an SEO perspective
Separate sites will give you multiple bites of the cherry, so to speak, with search engines. If you have, say, four websites that are loosely related in terms of content, any of those sites could rank highly for relevant searches, and any or all of them could knock competitors further down the listings. Especially if their content overlaps for the matter being searched for, and especially if you tailor any overlapping content such that each site comes at it from a slightly different angle. If all the sites are offering more-or-less the same product or service then this could be counterproductive, as you would be competing with yourself for rankings on the same keywords. But if each site is promoting a distinct product or service then the one most relevant to the search should rise up the listings, with the others close behind (depending on how distinct the search term is, and depending how carefully you overlap your content without duplicating it).
Experience and global opinion suggests that search engines consider matches of search words to domain-names, complete or in part, to be fairly important when ranking results. For example, a domain/URL featuring the word 'laptop' is likely to be considered more relevant for a search about laptops than a URL containing the word 'computing'. Thus it is a fairly safe bet that running multiple well-focused websites will pick up more search traffic if their domain names are also well focused.
Similarly, it is difficult to imagine that the overall focus of a site's subject/product/purpose in general won't be recorded by Google for use when ranking results, so four separate sites will (most likely) increase your chances of ranking higher for any specific keyword in terms of overall focus. For example, our design site has blog articles about driving and walking but I would not expect Google to rank them as highly as similar pages found on an established car site or walker's web portal. But I might be wrong.
One thing that is almost universally agreed upon since search engines were first developed, is the way that they place more significance on the content of a home page than on any other page found deeper in a site's structure. For this reason, the words found in the titles (both meta and HTML) on a home page are probably the most important in the entire site from an SEO search-matching perspective. With this in mind, it doesn't take an SEO genius to work out that multiple website home pages, each focused on the keywords relevant to their product or service, are going to bring a much better chance of high rankings than a single home page featuring more generalised text, or multiple first-level web pages treated as product or service intro pages. The extent of how important this factor will be will depend upon many other factors of the website(s) in question, but it's another safe bet that multiple focused home pages are going to give much better keyword optimisation opportunities and results than a single site could.
An added danger if you convert from multiple sites to just one
If you already operate separate sites then Google and other search engines will have built up historical ranking data for given search terms against each of those sites, which will be classed as 'established', with the ranking benefits that this brings with it (Google is open about this facet of its rankings). If you then switch that content to another site (e.g. your new master-site), that content will be treated as new content for a while, so your rankings for associated keywords are bound to suffer to some extent following the change. If you also do the logical thing and point your now redundant domains and URLs to the new master site, so as not to leave any broken links elsewhere on the web, it is not beyond the bounds of reason to expect Google to suddenly penalise some or all of the domains for 'duplicate content'.
Are there any cases where a single site would definitely be better?
It is our experience that Google views sites of around six pages or greater as being more important or authoritative than those of less pages (this is not an exact threshold figure; just an experienced, instinctive guess). We would therefore suggest that if your multiple sites are likely to stay at around this size or less, it might be the case that one larger site could have a greater SEO benefit in this regard than the advantages gained by focusing your SEO efforts on individual sites. But that still doesn't offset the advantage of being able to focus your branding and identity efforts.
Another related consideration is that Google knows exactly how many people follow each link presented in its search results, and how long they stay on those pages (in most cases), so Google almost certainly keeps track of how popular a site is, how many people don't find what they want (aka the 'bounce rate'), and consequently how likely the site is to be useful to future searchers. It is therefore inconceivable that these factors won't affect a site's rankings. What does this have to do with one site or many, I hear you ask? Well, one site is bound to get more traffic than any individual site of the many, so Google will probably consider it to be more popular. Slam dunk? ...not quite! Read on...
A more tightly SEO-focused set of separate websites should individually get more traffic than if their content were part of a bigger site, for all the reasons explained above. This should go some or all of the way towards offsetting any loss of traffic that a single site should get through having more content. And there's more... If you operate a number of separate sites, the search engines will consider them to be exactly what they are: individual websites in their own right. So when each site contains the inevitable keyword links to the other sites (e.g. "See our car exhausts website for..."), Google will register these as the inbound links that they are from other websites, which should help not only with cross-site traffic, but also with the way that search engines boost rankings according to the number of genuine inbound links that are found on other sites (another thing that Google tells us that it does).
So why doesn't everybody run lots of websites?
Multiple websites mean multiple hosting platforms, which inevitably has cost implications as each 'vhost' (part of the server) and database needs to be maintained and updated, and each takes up more storage for the underlying system. At Sinclair Design we offer discounts for multiple sites, but a single site is always going to be cheaper. Multiple sites also need to be managed separately with regards to content, so if a fundamental change needs to be made that affects all the sites, it will need to be made multiple times. Finally, and as mentioned above, if the content of each site is only going to be a few pages, it might be that Google will consider a single multi-product/service site of many pages to be more likely to meet the searcher's needs for information than a tiny single-product/service site.
If funds are an issue, one site is always going to be cheaper to build and maintain than many; but as long as you're not talking about tiny sites, and as long as there is a difference in the target audiences of your various products or services, multiple sites will give you multiple bites of the SEO cherry, focused and more effective branding opportunities, and most importantly, focused and more effective SEO opportunities.
Author: Roy Sinclair has been designing and developing websites since Noah tried to buy the domain the-ark.com. He likes to remind clients that due to the ceaseless progress of web tech, websites inevitably start to become dated on the day they are first published.