Are 5 Sites Better than One?

I wanted to relate an interesting scenario to you from last week at the Blizzard offices. We were talking with a gentleman who has a flagship site, and about six “niche” sites that support subjects contained within that flagship site. He’s frustrated with his lack of Google rankings.

I started digging, and trying to figure out why he’s having Google issues and found some interesting information in my research.

  • Each niche site is more than 30-percent duplicate of the flagship site
  • All of the sites link together contextually from many pages
  • All of the sites are hosted on the same server
  • Some of the niche sites send you to the flagship site for more information or vice versa

My first reaction was – well just get rid of the niche sites and concentrate on the flagship site. In further talks with the client, he’s relying solely on traffic he’s generating in Yahoo for the niche sites – so throwing out those sites and waiting for Google is going to be a bit painful.

Upon further reflection I was brought back to about two years ago when we had a similar problem with a client who had two bed and breakfasts in the same town. The sites were competing with each other for the same keywords, and the older site seemed to always rank well – no matter what we tried – while the newer site was destined for page five of the results.

I started investigating then, and recalled that experience as we talked to this new prospect. We fixed the issues and I started explaining how we did it, because you can rank multiple sites for the same long-tail keyword (super competitive – maybe not so much.)

Eliminate Duplicate Content

Taking care of duplicate content across sites you own is a necessary part of Web site ownership, and marketing. I used the free version of CopyScape to check for duplicate content on the Web for each page of his flagship site. I wasn’t surprised to see his niche sites come up in the results.

I started taking notes of each niche site and what page contained the duplicate content. I then started comparing the niche sites to each other. Once that was done I made some recommendations:

  1. Change the content on your flagship site. Each of the niche sites ranked pretty well in Yahoo – so they weren’t necessarily the issue, but I believed the duplication across domains was an issue in Google, so we recommended rewriting content on the flagship site to be very different from anything on the niche site.
  2. If you have two niche sites dedicated to the same subject, narrow it down to one site, and make sure you have great content there. I looked at which niche site ranked better and received better traffic, recommended we keep that one and merge any unique content into that site and 301 redirected the non-performer.

Use Care When Interlinking Your Sites

Linking sites you own together is OK – but can confuse the visitor if they all “look” the same. You’re also telling the search engines you own that site, whether you realize it or not. The next issue is really important if you want to continue to interlink your sites.

Consider Dedicated Hosting

If you’re using shared hosting for all of your sites, and you link them together, it’s imperative you move each site to its own dedicated hosting. If you’re not sure if you’re using shared hosting or how your sites are configured, check out who else is on your IP with a tool like this one at Shared hosting is traceable, and Google knows you own all of those sites – so they’re going to either “ding” all of them, or only give one site credence in their results.

In the scenario above with the bed and breakfasts, just putting each site on its own dedicated hosting set up sent the newer site from page five to bottom of page one in about three months. If you must interlink your sites, and you want to continue to do so, make sure you arrange your hosting correctly.

So we learned that having multiple sites isn’t a bad thing, if you’ve set them up correctly. Consider also the time and marketing investment five sites involves versus one site. You have to weigh the benefits of having five against the cost and judge for yourself. I certainly can’t guarantee this will solve all of your problems, but it worked for me and I definitely think if you’re working on more than one site in a niche or location, you should consider trying out this technique.

Submissions are now open for the 2009 Search Engine Watch Awards. Enter your company or campaign before July 17, 2009. Winners will be announced at SES San Jose.

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