Many businesses are structured such that they have a nationwide presence when it comes to marketing and advertising, but also a local presence in the areas where the product is sold or service is performed. For example, Target promotes its lowest price guarantee nationally, but those looking to shop in one of its stores need information specific to a particular location. Similarly, McDonald's will promote a new menu item nationally, but obviously can sell it only from one of its 10,000+ franchise locations.
In the SEO space, this situation leads to the question of whether it's better to have a single site that serves both the national and local interests or separate sites for each level. Unfortunately, the answer isn't an easy one to make, but here are some considerations.
Centralized Site Ownership
With a single site, the ownership of that site is more likely to be clearly established. Yes, local business owners may voice their opinions and constantly make demands, particularly if it's a franchise business, but the ultimate responsibility for the site will likely rest with a relatively small team at the corporate level. This is advantageous since this central team is going to aim for an approach that supports all locations as a whole rather than focus on a single location to the detriment of others. An SEO-specific example of this is whether to target a class of keywords that helps everyone vs. a specific set of keywords that are of interest to one particular location.
Centralized ownership can also expedite site changes as there will be fewer people who need to approve recommendations. Yes, many SEO-related decisions seem cut-and-dried, but in reality different people have differing opinions on how a change should actually be implemented. This is particularly true with design- and copy-related changes, where if you ask 10 people for their thoughts you'll get 10 different answers. Quick approval works well with SEO since it tends to be iterative in nature and works best when you can implement multiple smaller changes that you can learn from rather than relying on one big change.
Limited Resources and Fragmented Efforts
I've yet to work with a company that had unlimited resources for SEO. As a result, it's important to prioritize where budgets are spent to maximize the return. In the context of this column, the options include creating, maintaining, and promoting multiple sites vs. creating, maintaining, and promoting a single site.
For example, I worked with a business, The Maids, that had spent considerable funds building a national site that could also support individual franchises. But there were also some franchises that, despite having a home for their content (here's the local content house on the main site for The Maids of Roswell), also wanted to have their own separate sites. Both sites were getting links, both sites had content written for them, both sites wanted to make use of Google+ Local, both sites were getting social shares, and so on. However, a coordinated SEO effort for a single site is very likely going be better than that same overall effort split amongst two sites. I see this all the time: an established site launches some new content and immediately obtains visibility for that content. That same company at some other point launches a new domain and sees slow uptake by the search engines that in turn requires a stronger promotional effort than was hoped for.
Going Head-to-Head With the Competition
People often forget that succeeding with SEO is about being better than the competition. Google and the other search engines are just the referees that determine who has scored the most goals. If you approach SEO with this in mind, one of the first things you'll want to understand is what the competition is doing. If they have constructed comprehensive sites with authoritative link profiles, it's going to be hard(er) for a site with a local focus to compete. Admittedly, a geo-specific site does get a bit of a bonus to relevance given its local focus, but is that bonus going to be enough to trump the competition?
Leverage Brand Trust
Over the years we've seen Google show preference for brands. Whether this preference is coming from a deliberate set of tweaks to favor brands or merely the side-effect of Google's overall strategy is a discussion for another column. What I don't think anyone would question is the increasing SEO value from all that goes into creating a brand.
Building a brand is hard and that's what makes it a good measure of legitimacy. It's quite intuitive that it's going to be difficult for a local site, with a limited presence and a limited budget, to establish a brand when compared to a site that pools the efforts and value of hundreds of locations. More specifically, a big site will benefit from marketing activities that automatically reinforce the brand, whether it's from traditional press coverage to something seemingly minor like having the exact match domain.
So Local Sites Are Worthless?
Local sites have their place and I'm wary of suggesting that the same answer is going to apply to everyone. So let me close out this discussion with some counter-arguments to the above.
First, if your resources are such that you can effectively support multiple sites, go for it. Doing so can't hurt and may actually help you capture more search engine results page (SERP) real estate.
Second, a local site could also be of benefit if you expand the definition of local to include other countries - e.g., a site like Best Buy U.S. and a different site for Best Buy Canada makes sense given the differences in product availability and pricing.
Finally, on the brand side it is indeed possible to build one at a local level, especially if your business includes a lot of direct interaction with people. A particular location that provides good service will in turn inspire people to share praise and recommend that location regardless of the perception of the parent company.
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Marios Alexandrou is the East Coast Director of SEO for Steak's Search Marketing team and has a background in web development and project management. While he loathes to tell people just how long he's been working with computers, he will admit that his first computer had just 16KB of memory.
His SEO experience includes work with both in-house and agency teams ranging from one-man shows to 20+ dedicated SEO strategists. He has worked with organizations of all sizes and across multiple industries including hospitality, financial services, publishing, and healthcare. He particularly likes to use his combination of skills to identify ways to scale SEO activities through process standardization and automation.
In addition to writing about SEO for ClickZ, Marios also writes on the broader area of Internet marketing for Infolific.
March 19, 2014