Avoiding Search Engine Woes with Multiple Domains and Websites

Operating multiple sites using numerous domains is a great strategy for businesses appealing to a wide range of customers. But this approach may trigger search engine spam penalties, if you're not careful with implementation.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, December 13-16, 2004, Chicago, IL.

Business owners have many reasons for purchasing multiple domains. For example, if a business has international offices and locations, having multiple sites written in an appropriate language can increase search engine visibility, conversions, and brand recognition. However, owning and maintaining multiple domain names and multiple sites can also cause problems with the search engines. This panel explored various issues that might arise with multiple sites.

Owning multiple domains

"There is no doubt there are situations where businesses need multiple domains," said Michael Palka, Director of Search at Ask Jeeves. "Having unique, good individual content and business rationale should be the main reasons why you choose to have multiple domains."

Ben Wills, Director of Search at WebSourced's KeywordRanking.com, suggested three legitimate reasons for having multiple domains: company brand recognition with subdomains, product branding, and regional marketing.

"Microsoft has a section of their Web site for developers called the Microsoft Developer Network," Wills explained. "However, they do not necessarily want the brand, Microsoft Developer Network, to be its own standalone brand. But they do want the brand name (Microsoft) prominently featured. Subdomains are a great way to utilize the brand strength of the main domain and have subdomains piggy-back off of the main brand."

Sometimes an individual product or service has brand recognition on its own. For example, a popular product brand is Kenmore (from Sears) or maybe Tide (from Procter & Gamble). In this type of situation, having a separate domain and Web site is a good search engine marketing strategy.

"There are no one-size-fits-all types of solutions, said Bruce Clay, President of Bruce Clay, Inc. "Sometimes you have products that stand out enough on their own, and sometimes you have products that are synergistic—that brand together, that fit together.

Finally, if a business has international locations, having multiple domains with the appropriate TLD (top-level domain) string is a good strategy. "This is both for higher search rankings in local search engines, and also for user comfort," said Wills, "making users feel like your business has a presence in their own backyard and can relate better to their needs, especially if the site uses the same language that site visitors use."

Potential problems with multiple sites

"Multiple domains create as many issues as they address," said Clay. "You can own 100 domains covering significantly different products, linking them to a central domain—each solving the subject-focus issues but creating linking issues. Furthermore, purchasing 100 domains loaded with keywords and pointing them to the same physical site can cause duplicate content issues. Each situation is unique and they all have to be handled differently."

Some problems that arise with owning and maintaining multiple sites is inappropriate cross-linking and search engine spam. "Many people have no clue with how to link between domains," Clay explained. "They just buy 100 domains, put in different segments of their company products, link them all together, and think that they are finished with cross-linking. What these site owners end up with are a bunch of sites that are not optimized. These sites will have difficulty getting ranked for targeted keywords."

Using templates and switching out locations can also add up to search engine spam. "Say I search for news in Iowa, and then a search for news in Alabama," said Palka. "I receive sites and domains that look similar. The pages have the exact same heading and just changed the state name. This is an example of someone who has domains for each state, uses a template and is trying to skim the Web traffic to monetize everything with the same content. This is clearly domain spam, and utilizing this strategy does not adding value or relevant results for the user. And if a site gets banned by our engine, it is really tough to get back in."

"Another problem is having your ISP (Internet Service Provider) or Web host point multiple domains to the same production site," Clay further explained. "This creates duplicate content for the search engines, which is not good. 301 redirects are the best solution. However, if you park all of your sites on the same domain, you cannot use the 301 because physically there is only one set box. You do not have a way of discerning one site from the others."

When dealing with duplicate content, especially when one domain might have good content and the other domains do not, search engines tend to keep the best site in their indices. One site might have excellent content, but the business owner might be trying to put out a bunch of domains to cover all of the bases, and that is not what we're looking for," Palka explained. "It is just a ploy that does not help our users nor our advertisers. In this situation, we say which domain is the best one and give that one the credit. We probably will keep one domain and get rid of all the other ones, and then we will adjust the rankings."

"If you have 50 different sites with 50 different domain names and 50 different hosting companies, with a linking scheme to everything, you might get some short term results," Wills further explained, "but the longevity of those results all will eventually raise a red flag with the search engines."

Multi-site and multi-domain solutions

Some businesses have both a dynamic and a static site. The sites have different IPs on the same server. Typically, the static site shows up very well in the search engines, and business owners are worried about being penalized because both the static and dynamic site contain the same content. From a business perspective, the reason for having two sites is functional, such as a better shopping cart setup on the dynamic site.

"There are times where we're not going to throw everything out. We might say we don't need most of the sites and only put up one," said Palka. "Or you can use the Robots Exclusion Protocol so we don't spider the dynamic site."

Some business owners have subdomains for multiple marketing activities. Sometimes, the URLs point to a page on the main Web site. "I would suggest doing a one-page subdomain site, off of your main site," said Clay. "And then do a 301 redirect from that subdomain to the main site. Subdomains are typically only used for people who actually type it in and not for your main search."

"Just because sites are linked to each other does not mean we are going to say the sites are no good," Palka explained. "It's whether or not that the links pointing to your site are also going to give you relevance and popularity. If you only have a bunch of links from only your own sites linking to each other, or excessive reciprocal links or irrelevant links, it could raise a red flag."

"We want all the content you have, but we don't want it to rank falsely or be misrepresented," Palka concluded, "because that unfairly penalizes the relevant content and sites."

Grant Crowell is the CEO and Creative Director at Grantastic Designs, Inc.. He has 15 combined years of experience in the fields of print and online design, newspaper journalism, public relations, and publications.