Multiple domain strategy for SEO

It’s likely you’re familiar with grocery chains Albertsons and Safeway, but it may come as a bit of a surprise to find that both belong to the same company – Albertsons. The external appearance as separate companies with independent identities is a clever marketing trick. The pretend “competition” means that it doesn’t matter which of the two stores the customer chooses: the profits flow to one and the same company.

In addition to the centralization of profits, the shared market dominance by the two brands is another advantage. If one of the two is affected by a serious scandal or attracts negative attention due to a botched advertising campaign, the other remains unaffected.

With a multiple domain strategy, companies pursue a similar approach online. As market dominance increases, risks are minimized, customers have a sense of choice, and profits converge in one place. Read on to find out how exactly this works and how you can use multiple domains profitably.

Note

In this article, we refer to the SEO technical term “SERP”. The abbreviation stands for “Search Engine Results Page” which is the results pages of a search on Google or another search engine.

What’s the connection between content, domain, and search engines?

The multiple domain strategy is an advanced approach to search engine optimization (SEO) using multiple domains. In multiple domain SEO, as in all other SEO, the maxim “content is king” applies. To understand what makes a functioning multiple domain strategy, let’s first take a look at how content, domains, and search engines are connected.

Normally, the contents of a website exist under a single domain. For example, imagine a website with the domain “example.com”. Its contents are usually structured and can be accessed via corresponding URLs. The search engines bots primarily crawl the URLs and index the content they contain.

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A multi-domain setup leads to a completely different evaluation by search engines. A search engine considers all content under one domain as belonging together. In contrast, multiple domains imply a clear separation of content. If you want to benefit from content distributed across multiple domains, you need a sophisticated multi-domain content strategy.

Structure web content with directories

The directories follow the domain and form a so-called “path”. In principle, these directories are similar to the ones on your computer’s hard drive. Here is an example of the URL of the logo of a sample site.

Structure web content with permalinks

Usually, most of the content on a larger website does not exist as individual files in directories. Instead, the content is generated by a dynamic process. For example, it is loaded from a database and visualized based on a template. Each piece of content is assigned a fixed URL – called a “permalink”. Here are a few examples of possible permalink structures.

Structure content at the domain level with multi-domain setups

So far, we’ve looked at ways to structure web content below a domain. As you can see, there are many different approaches. In some cases, however, it makes sense to distribute web content across multiple domains. This is called a multi-domain setup.

As a rule, the use of a multi-domain setup increases the complexity of the entire system. The approach should be well considered before you commit; it is a strategic decision. Above all, multi-domain SEO must be considered from the very beginning. So what are the motivations for using multiple domains?

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Use customized technical infrastructure with multi-domain setup

A single domain is usually served by a single server. In certain cases, you may want to implement parts of a website with standalone systems. Imagine a company website that contains an online store and blog in addition to the informative pages. If a single, central system is used for the three areas, bottlenecks quickly become apparent. It would be better to manage the three areas separately. A viable approach would be the following, in which three domains are used:

  1. Static pages for the company website: www.example.com
  2. WordPress for the blog: blog.example.com
  3. Magento for the online shop: shop.example.com

Each of these systems is perfectly adapted to the task at hand and is separately retained. If you want to optimize one of the systems, the others are not affected. Furthermore, the individual systems can be hosted on different servers without issues. The administrative advantage is offset by the need to operate a well-coordinated multi-domain SEO. Otherwise, you risk issues with ranking individual sites and the external presentation of the brand.

Split groups of content across sites with multi-domain setup

Some websites contain vast amounts of content. If the relation between groups of content is weak, it makes sense to organize them independently. For example, imagine a large, multi-lingual news website. Independent editors oversee the editions for different languages or countries. The editions do not resemble each other in content or content structures. The following multi-domain setup would be suitable here:

  1. Homepage, automatically redirects users to the homepage of the appropriate edition: www.example.com
  2. German edition: de.example.com
  3. English Edition: en.example.com
  4. Analog for other languages

You may be familiar with the use of language-specific subdomains from Wikipedia. With Wikipedia articles, however, there’s a special feature with regard to multi-domain SEO: an article in one language should link to the same article in all other language versions. To realize this, the hreflang attribute of the link element is used. This tells search engine bots that the content under the different domains represents one and the same content in different languages.

Let’s look at a final example. With WordPress.com anyone can create their own WordPress website. It’s hosted free of charge and can be operated as a blog or website. Each added WordPress instance is created under its own subdomain, for example “example.wordpress.com”. Here, subdomains from a SEO point of view are the right choice; if these were sub-directories instead, the hosted sites would compete in search results.

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Implement a multiple domain strategy with multi-domain setup

On a technical level, the core of a multiple domain strategy consists of two components:

  1. Distribute targeted content to multiple sites under different domains.
  2. Link the content or set up specific redirects between contents.

For search engines, this creates a structure that extends beyond a single domain. If implemented correctly, this results in decisive ranking advantages. If the individual sites contain similar keywords, they may dominate the first page of the SERPs. By using different keywords, specific niches can be occupied.

The critical point here is that only the content hosted via the domains counts for SEO. Only indexed content is included in the ranking of the domain. Contrary to popular belief, there is no immediate SEO advantage in redirecting multiple domains to one main domain. Nevertheless, it can make sense to practice domain parking which prevents typosquatting and similar questionable practices.

Choose the right domains for your multiple domain strategy

We tend to use the terms “domain” and “subdomain” intuitively. Even just by looking at the name, we can see a clear connection between “example.com” and “sub.example.com”. However, from a search engine’s perspective, these are independent domains. The following table illustrates the terms of the domain hierarchy:

Fully Qualified Domain Name (FQDN) Top-Level Domain (TLD) Second-Level Domain (SLD) Third-Level Domain (Subdomain)
sub.example.com. com example sub

For a multiple domain strategy, one can also use different second level domains. The latter implies a clear visual separation and thus has a different effect on our perception. The use of subdomains or second level domains offers various advantages and disadvantages. Decisive are the desired effects for SEO during domain selection. Here is an overview of possible solutions for two example sites:

Application With sub-director With subdomain With alternative TLD With alternative SLD
Online shop for example.com example.com/shop/ shop.example.com example.shop exampleshop.com
English language version for example.com example.com/en/ en.example.com example.en example.en

When does it make sense to pursue a mulitple domain strategy?

A multiple domain strategy is useful in the following cases:

  1. As part of a long-term SEO strategy when other SEO techniques have been exhausted.
  2. To better position an entire brand rather than a single site.
  3. To achieve keyword dominance on the first page of SERPs.
  4. To expand into new markets, either geographically or with new products.

Multiple highly ranked results in SERPs increase the probability that a user will click on one of the results. Furthermore, a domain network is more resistant to changes in search engine algorithms. A possible penalty then only affects one of the sites.

Two ways to use the multiple domain strategy

To use a multiple domain strategy, first we need several domains. But where do you get them from? In principle, there are four ways to obtain a domain for multiple domain SEO:

  1. Create a subdomain as part of a main domain (Second-Level Domain, SLD)
  2. Register a new domain
  3. Register expired SLD
  4. Purchase existing (registered) SLD

Each has advantages and disadvantages. We have summarized these for you here:

Domain Advantage Disadvantage
Subdomain Complete control; guaranteed availability; (visually subordinate to the main domain). Domain starts from scratch; (visually subordinate to the main domain)
Register new SLD Complete control; use of new TLD Domain starts from scratch
Register expired SLD Potentially valuable backlinks May be preloaded
Purchase registered SLD Perfect name; potentially valuable backlinks Can be very expensive; can be preloaded
Tip

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Use microsites for multiple domain strategy

A proven way to implement the multiple domain strategy is to build multiple microsites. A microsite is a website type with a narrowly defined focus on a specific product. Each of the microsites is optimized for a specific niche, audience, or keywords. Links are then created from the pages of the microsites to the actual main site. This results in the potential to dominate the SERPs for selected keywords.

You can entrust the creation of a microsite to a freelancer or an agency. However, this may incur considerable charges for the website creation. A less expensive option is the MyWebsite Design Service from IONOS. Alternatively, create your own microsite with the MyWebsite Website Builder.

In any case, make sure that your microsite has a valid SSL certificate. Also, ensure a canonical tag is set for all content to avoid duplicate content and penalization from Google.

Use redirects for a multiple domain strategy

Instead of building up microsites under several domains, a more direct approach is to buy the existing sites including their domains. It’s best to choose sites or domains with strong rankings for interesting keywords. When using 301 redirects, specific URLs of the purchased sites are redirected to pages of the main site. Search engines respect 301 redirects and transfer the “link juice”. The ranking of the main site for new keywords improves.

This approach requires a lot of planning and subtlety. Although in principle it is possible to redirect the entire domain of a purchased site to a main site, this should be avoided. It is more promising to keep indexable content under a purchased domain and redirect only specific URLs. Search engine expert Neil Patel notes that link juice is lost increasingly when you replace the old content of the domain.

Examples of multiple domain strategy

Below we discuss examples of multiple domain strategies used by larger organizations.

Note

In order to understand the following searches, you must run them in an incognito window. Depending on your browser settings and the location of your search, you may still see different results than in our screenshots.

Managing an Apple ID

Perform a Google search for the search term “apple id”. As you can see, the first page of search results is dominated by Apple. Three Apple domains are shown:

Domain Explanation Domain type
appleid.apple.com Microsite for Apple ID management Subdomain
support.apple.com Apple Help Portal Support Pages Subdomain
www.apple.com Apple Shop account management pages Second Level Domain (SLD) with www subdomain

Creating a WordPress site

A similar picture emerges when you perform a Google search for “wordpress”. The first page of the SERPs is dominated by different domains belonging to the WordPress ecosystem:

Domain Explanation Domain type
wordpress.com WordPress.com for hosted blogs Second Level Domain (SLD)
en.wordpress.org WordPress.org to host a site yourself alternative SLD with language-specific subdomain

Buy real estate from Zillow / Trulia in the USA

A frequently cited example of a successful multiple domain strategy comes from US real estate group Zillow. The company managed to place its two brands “Zillow” and “Trulia” on the first page of the SERPs for the Google search “real estate usa”. Thus, there is a good chance a visitor will click on one of the brand’s links. A win-win for the group!

Domain Explanation Domain type
Domain www.zillow.com Second Level Domain (SLD) with www subdomain
Domain www.trulia.com alternative SLD with www subdomain

Conclusion

A multiple domain strategy can make sense but requires effort and planning. Since it is a long-term strategy, it is more suitable for larger companies. Below is a summary of the advantages and disadvantages of the two approaches described. Note that they are by no means mutually exclusive. Rather, a functioning multiple domain strategy can include both purchased and self-created microsites. Depending on the specific use case, linking and redirecting can be employed.

Multi-domain use Advantage Disadvantage
Build microsites Complete control Elaborate, expensive
Use redirects Uses existing Link Juice Requires a lot of sensitivity, expensive

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