A WordPress Multsite implementation – it’s cheaper than Google Adwords!
We recently completed the development of a web site for a Financial Services client which is a little different than the normal website. It is not just a web site, it is in fact almost 2,000 web sites, all managed and hosted on a single WordPress instance on the same server. (Unfortunately for reasons of client confidentiality I am not able to provide a link to any of the sites).
What is the purpose of all this?
Well, within the highly competitive market for finding the best mortgage online to match your particular circumstances, the cost of advertising using Google Adwords can be prohibitive. Costs of £10 per click are fairly standard.
So our client decided instead that they wanted to target the natural search engines for traffic. The strategy was to provide a series of specialist microsites for every variation in mortgage type, which would all be given a relevant descriptive domain name or URL based on the likely search terms entered when people were looking for this type of mortgage.
In doing so they would benefit from search engines propensity to rank sites highly which have exact name matches to the entered search terms. Care was taken not to link the sites to each other or to their main corporate sites to avoid Google classifying them as a link farm.
The aim was to make the setting up of a new site, apart from the content, as quick as possible. The approach taken meant each site took around 5 minutes to create. They were created in groups, each with their own design template. Artifacts such as pages, images, styles and forms could either be shared across all sites, or within a group, or be particular for a site.
The sites were optimized by use of the appropriate keywords in their content, but care was taken not to “stuff” the site with keywords or in any way detract from the readability of the site.
Each site, as well as having some standard features such as an about us page, has their own unique content providing information about the specific type of mortgage. Titles, images, headings were all tagged with the appropriate key phrases. Interactive enquiries into the best rates available were provided by use of a window (iFrame) which accessed an external mortgage site.
An enquiry submission form was the main call to action, submitting the visitors’ requests for further information for the follow up. So the sites meet a specific need by providing relevant information and answers to visitors’ queries if they are interested in hearing more.
The technical effort of creating the site was surprisingly straighforward considering the number of sites involved. This is down to the use of the excellent WordPress multisite functionality, along with a Domain Mapping plugin to map each site to the descriptive URL.
Sites were put into groups of around 50 addressing related mortgage types, and where common page could be updated across all the sites in the group. For technical as well as business reasons the groups were not allowed to become too large to prevent exceeding the server memory limits.
Maintenance was a key factor in view of the large number of sites. For example the branding elements were kept as far as possible in style sheets so that they could be easily updated across all sites or within a group.
The site was optimized for search engines partly by ensuring, for example, all images had their descriptions and alt text set to relevant key phrases, and also using an SEO plugin to ensure page titles and descriptions were properly targeted. The plugin also allowed insertion of the code for the Google analytics for each site so traffic could be properly measured.
With 2000 sites also comes the need for 2000 domain names. This is a serious investment in both the cost of registering the domains and in the effort involved in the keyword analysis in deciding on the names. This was exacerbated by the decision to improve the sites’ rankings and go for better quality .com domains rather than cheaper but less reputable TLDs.
As would be expected, content creation for 2000 sites, unless “automated” (which is not what the client wanted) is a major task. The content is created by the client with a team of writers, producing tailored information on each financial product , effectively an on-line brochure targeted at a very specific market segment.
It is not just a one off activity, as the client was keen to update the sites periodically to provide news and additional commentary on the financial products and the market generally.
There are as mentioned duplicate pages across the sites, for the About Us and Contact Us pages for example, where the information is shared. To avoid these being seen by the search engines as duplicate content, they were set up as images.
Does it Work?
Has all this effort been worth it? The answer to this is firstly has the strategy proved successful in generating the right sort of leads in the quantities anticipated? To answer this we defer to our clients as they are monitoring the traffic themselves. They say they are reasonably pleased given the sites have been only launched over the last 3-6 months.
In terms of SERP ranking of the sites it is a mixed bag, with some sites making it on to the first page of Google for the keyword term, and others appearing on the second. However many do not appear in the top 5 pages. Un surprisingly, the longer the tail of the key word phrase, the better the rank generally. Yahoo rankings seem to do better, with many more first page entries. We have not tried Bing, but presume they will be similar to Yahoo.
The second question is, does it provide more leads than putting all this effort into a single site? What we are weighing is the relative strength of having small sites based around individual key phrase for specific products and which is reflected in the domain name, with a much larger and more general mortgage site. The latter would have the benefit of better ranking potentially as all the effort in creating the multisites could be expended on improving SEO of this one site.
There is no compelling evidence here either way. The only measure we have is to compare the leads generated by the client’s existing main site with the multisites, and here the client feels that in terms of the investment they have made on both approaches, the multisite’s performance is encouraging.
However there still remains the unanswered question, would putting the effort in developing the multisites have been better placed improving the client’s original site? And secondly, is there a risk Google will downgrade the weighting given to domain names to their algorithm (although they have not given any indication they are likely to do so in the near future)?
But Is it Spam?
There is a view that setting up thousands of sites in this way is a form of spam.
For instance on his respected legal blog, Robert Ambrogi declared that having multiple sites for one firm is ‘SEO spam’ and claims that having multiple sites is ‘confusing and misleading to customers’ (see here).
By using the term ‘spam’, Ambrogi implies that having multiple sites are only designed for a search engine rather than the user. However, I argue that this is far from the case, and in reality these sites are as “white hat” as can be, with no intent in fooling any visitors, and no spamming to fool the search engines. Marketing it may be, but not spamming. I see them as roadside ads on the internet superhighway.
Tim Mayer, Director of Product Management for Yahoo Search defined spam as ‘pages created deliberately to trick the search engine into offering inappropriate, redundant or poor quality search results’. Yahoo’s full definition of spam is given below (see here for source).
- Pages Yahoo! Wants Included in the Index:
- Original and unique content of genuine value.
- Pages designed primarily for humans, with search engine considerations a secondary concern.
- Hyperlinks intended to help people find interesting, related content, when applicable.
- Metadata (including title and description) that accurately describes the contents of a web page.
- Good web design in general.
Unfortunately, not all web pages contain information that is valuable to a user. Some pages are created deliberately to trick the search engine into offering inappropriate, redundant or poor-quality search results. This is often called “spam.” Yahoo! does not want these pages in the index.
What Yahoo! Considers Unwanted:
- Some, but not all, examples of the types of content that Yahoo! does not want include:
- Pages that harm the accuracy, diversity or relevance of search results.
- Pages dedicated to redirecting the user to another page (doorway pages).
- Multiple sites or pages offering substantially the same content.
- Sites with numerous, unnecessary virtual hostnames.
- Pages produced in great quantities, which have been automatically generated or which are of little value (cookie cutter pages).
- Pages using methods to artificially inflate search engine ranking.
- The use of text or links that are hidden from the user.
- Pages that give the search engine different content than what the end user sees (cloaking).
- Sites excessively cross linked with other sites to inflate a site’s apparent popularity (link schemes).
- Pages built primarily for the search engines or pages with excessive or off-topic keywords.
- Misuse of competitor names.
- Multiple sites offering the same content.
- Sites that use excessive pop-ups which interfere with user navigation.
- Pages that seem deceptive, fraudulent, or provide a poor user experience.
In terms of what Yahoo wants from a site, we believe the sites meet the 5 positive criteria they should have for their specific subject matter.
As far as the characteristics that should be avoided the following are the most relevant relate to offering similar content across multiple sites, and not showing search engines what the user sees.
It is true there is some content, such as the About Us page, that is similar across all the sites, but this has been addressed by putting the content into images. It could be argued that this is showing search engines different content than what the end user sees, but only insofar as this is true of any imagery on a site, and we are not showing the search engines anything a human doesn’t see.
In claiming that all firms with multiple sites are spamming it is implied that these sites are not helpful or useful to a customer.
Having multiple websites providing customers with the same content and information is spamming, and is purely designed to increase SEO rankings.
But it is different if each site provides its audience with a completely different set of information, and is relevant for anyone who is looking for help for that particular product or service . The sites have a blog news section, which specifically focuses on the merits and characteristics of this product.
It can serve a useful purpose having different websites if they can be aimed for different target groups of customers, and for different products and services. The advantage of having a specialized site for a particular service means that customers will be able to find exactly what they are looking for straight away and only see information relevant to this particular service.
If a site had multiple domains and sites for the same business and same services and products and with duplicate content that this would be counted as spamming. However, as long as content is different in each site, and is relevant and useful, all businesses are doing by having multiple sites is helping clients find what they want more easily.
Rather than users having to navigate a main site to find the exact product or service they want, separate sites makes it easier for customers to find exactly what they want. The nature of the Internet and Google means that people are increasingly impatient to find exactly what they want without much effort. Few people linger on sites for long, and if they have to spend too long working out how to navigate a main site to get the information they need, it is likely customers will drift towards websites with greater clarity where less effort is needed to find what they want.
Yes, multiple sites is a way to increase SEO, but what is wrong with trying to advertise your business and ensure customers can find your page easier? No attempt has been made to create dubious links – in fact no attempt has been made to create any links at all. The sites are totally reliant on their content for them to be found. They could almost be seen as the embodying the purest form of whiter than white SEO.
As multiple sites can actively improve user experience and provide them with what they are looking for, the method of having multiple sites makes things easier for users, as well as increasing a business’s profile on the Internet.