Having multiple websites hosted on different domains can be either a great or bad tactic when it comes to SEO.
Most of the reasons for having multiple sites are tied more to business decisions or best practices, such as focusing a product offering for one customer base or separating brands into different websites, which can help the user find their content as quickly as possible.
However, one common question that I get when discussing multiple sites is, “Are they better or worse for SEO?”
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), there is no right answer to that question. There are pros and cons of having multiple sites and having one umbrella site to house all of your content.
To understand this a little better, let’s explore the SEO benefits and negatives, and take a look into the best practices for having multiple sites.
Pros of Using Multiple Sites
Matching the Searcher Intent
Multiple sites can be beneficial for your users, especially for companies that have different brands or different products/service offerings.
If you have a portfolio of companies using different websites for each one, then it most likely makes sense to have separate domains for each company/brand. However, breaking out individual services or product offerings for each company into different domains most likely would not make sense.
Shutterfly is one example of a company that does a great job with multiple sites, making all of them ideal for their users and SEO.
Shutterfly breaks out each of their companies that they own into different domains and links them together in the footer level. This makes it so that the user can navigate to each one easily but doesn’t get bogged down with so many options had the company decided to use one site or domain for all of their brands.
You also want to make sure that each site is well optimized for not only search engines but also your users. When someone is searching, if they come to a website with a clear and concise service offering, this should solve their searcher intent. However, if your site is not optimized for the searcher intent, then they will go somewhere else, which will increase your bounce rate and could end up hurting your the rankings.
Capturing More Google Real Estate
There are other benefits of using multiple sites besides helping to match a clearer product/service offering to the searcher. For niches without too much competition, multiple sites can also help you to take up more Google real estate with additional websites or domains targeting similar keyword phrases with different unique content.
A good example of this would be if you have a portfolio of websites/brands which target similar keyword phrases, but you have different service offerings which satisfy that searcher intent. Breaking them out into different websites makes more sense than making an umbrella brand with a service dropdown or something similar.
Google is more likely to place two different domains in the SERPs for one keyword phrase than they are to place two URLs from the same domain in the SERPs for the same keyword phrase unless there is really no competition in the market.
Don’t worry if you are in a niche that is more competitive — this can still work in competitive niches as long as you have a strong backlink profile for all of your sites.
Let’s go back to Shutterfly — they also own a company called Wedding Paper Divas. They both have different product offerings, but have some overlap such as “Wedding Invitations.”
If you Google that keyword phrase, you will see both their Shutterfly and Wedding Paper Divas inner category page, which ranks for the keyword phrase (Position 3 for Shutterfly and Position 4 for Wedding Paper Divas.)
While Shutterfly offers wedding invitations, it wouldn’t really make sense to merge Wedding Paper Divas into the Shutterfly domain because it is a much more focused product/service offering. This way, they can capture more of the Google real estate.
This situation is a good example for the case to have different domains with two separate brands to capture more of the Google real estate. Even though that is a very competitive keyword phrase (an estimated 301,000 monthly searches), Shutterfly is able to get two of the top ten spots because, according to Ahrefs, their link profile score is 1,413 for Shutterfly and 57,934 for Wedding Paper Divas.
If they didn’t have such a strong link profile, then they would probably not be ranking so high for such a competitive keyword phrase.
Duplicate Content (Helps … Sometimes)
This is a bit rarer, but many portfolios that contain multiple websites, such as online retailers, have products or categories they are retailing on multiple sites. If you were to combine all of this content on just one website — the products and categories, which are the same on each domain — you would create duplicate content issues. You would need to consolidate these products or categories, which can be difficult and time intensive.
Let’s say that Shutterfly decides to merge their main site with Wedding Paper Divas. They want to create one umbrella site, but they have products and categories that are exactly the same. These crossover products and categories would be duplicates of the categories and products on Wedding Paper Divas and, therefore, would create duplicate content across the website.
This is why multiple sites can help — because you can sell the same products on different domains and not have the issue of duplicate content on one domain.
Cons of Having Multiple Sites
Splitting Link Authority
The biggest drawback of having multiple sites is that you are splitting up your link authority between them. This can be detrimental for websites in competitive niches fighting over highly searched keyword phrases.
Let’s use the example from earlier, about wedding invitations, and say that Shutterfly and Wedding Paper Divas were not in ideal positions in a highly competitive keyword phrase. Let’s say, instead, that they were in the middle of page two or three, and their link profiles were on par with their competitors on page two or three.
A good tactic, in theory, would be to combine the pages so that the link authority of both sites would combine them into a much powerful link profile to — it is hoped — then push them to the first page.
When evaluating your multiple sites, you also want to make sure that you evaluate the backlink profiles because your backlink profile generally correlates to ranking high in Google for the keyword phrases that you are targeting.
Decreases Branding Effects
It takes more than just links and content to rank in Google these days. Popular brands are winning on Google over better “optimized” websites, such as the big box retailers. I think Google can tell a site’s popularity through usability signals and uses them more than ever before.
If you use multiple sites, you also have to brand multiple sites, execute social media sites for each site, and more. This splits your resources across many different brands and website properties; therefore, in theory, making you less effective.
Obviously, there will be exceptions to this, especially companies that are leveraging multiple brands to make each of them stronger, but, generally, splitting efforts makes it more difficult. The lesser the brand you are, the less likely you will be linked to, and you will receive fewer visits and gain fewer opportunities to achieve higher positive ranking factors in Google’s algorithm.
Best Practices for Multiple Sites
Now that we have covered some pluses and minuses and you have a good idea of which direction you should go, let’s discuss some best practices for utilizing multiple websites if, in fact, you decide to go that route.
1. Combine Sites When It Makes Sense
If you have multiple sites selling the same products but none are really ranking where you want them to, then combining the sites can be a good tactic for SEO in order to increase the link profile. One “super” link profile is better than five “below average” link profiles. You must evaluate the potential growth of the keyword rankings versus the loss revenue of multiple websites.
Sometimes, it is an easy business decision to merge websites, as it means less maintenance and marketing, and fewer headaches. Other times, the loss of revenue from merging websites does not outgain the SEO benefits of having one strong link profile. You must weigh the benefits and the negatives of each before merging websites or separating out websites and brands (if they are currently one domain).
2. Link Your Sites to Each Other
If you aren’t linking your sites together, you are missing a golden opportunity to share link authority, and you stop users from being able to navigate to the other domains that you have in your portfolio.
The Envato family of businesses and Shutterfly have inner linked their websites together using the logos of each company, which I like. Depending on your preference and comfort level, you can also add the rel=nofollow tag and can add it at the footer.
You can also look for opportunities in your blog content or other various content for inner linking opportunities to each of your sites, as long as it makes sense for the user.
3. Don’t Replicate Websites Exactly
With all of this being said, I would not recommend taking all of your content and just making multiple websites. It might seem easy to “capture” more Google real estate with the same content but, in reality, it is never that easy, and it just doesn’t work that way. It has to make sense for the user, which is why making a bunch of websites, all with similar content, doesn’t work well.
Overall, using multiple sites can help SEO if you are using it to create unique and better experiences for the searcher and to claim more Google real estate. There are negatives as well that you will have to weigh, such as splitting your link authority, which makes it harder to rank in competitive spaces.
Before deciding to merge or keep websites separate, look at the benefits business-wise and SEO-wise, and then evaluate based on each to make a good decision. Most importantly, think what is best for the user, and the Google rankings will come.
Screenshots by Ronald Dod. Taken July 2017.