WordPress Multisite is a feature of the core WordPress.org software that allows multiple websites to be powered by a single installation of WordPress. There are several considerations to evaluate when determining if managing multiple websites through a Multisite network is right for you.
But before we talk about whether or not to use Multisite, let’s discuss whether or not you need multiple websites at all.
Use Cases for Deploying Multiple Websites
There are several reasons to build and manage multiple websites for one business, including:
- Companies that have more than one physical location
- Global organizations with divisions in multiple countries that require content in multiple languages
- Large companies that have separate divisions or subsidiaries for separate purposes and audiences
- Educational institutions with multiple campuses and/or different schools within one university network
- Companies that acquired another company, yet want to maintain separate brands
- Companies that want to deploy a microsite strategy for either SEO or building brand reputation for a specialization
Sometimes the decision of whether or not to deploy and start managing multiple websites is a simple one. In cases where the branding needs to be totally different amongst divisions, multiple websites are certainly warranted. However, in other cases, the decision is less clear.
Considerations for Undertaking the Management of Multiple Websites
If it’s possible for your organization to deliver content through a single website, but you’re considering deploying separate sites, take into consideration the following:
- Effort involved in basic maintenance of multiple websites (design changes, security updates, backups, etc.)
- Costs of maintaining separate websites (hosting, premium plugins, security subscriptions, etc.)
- Effort involved in building up SEO reputation of multiple websites
I want to expand on that last one, as I think this is one of the most overlooked considerations when a business is deciding whether or not to deploy and start managing multiple websites. SEO is HARD. It takes A LOT of work. It involves keeping up with Google’s latest technical requirements, pushing out a ton of high quality and well-keyword-optimized content on a regular basis, acquiring quality inbound links for the domain, constantly monitoring performance, and consulting with or hiring an SEO expert or agency on a regular basis.
Even a very small business can end up needing to lay out thousands of dollars (and/or dozens of labor hours) per month on web development, copywriting, public relations or social media efforts for link building, and consulting fees—just to build and maintain an SEO reputation for their website. This five-to-six figure per year expense immediately gets doubled the moment you deploy a second website.
SEO Benefits of Having Multiple Websites
With the above warning having been said, there are indeed potential SEO benefits to having multiple websites.
- Opportunity to claim more than one spot on Page 1 of search results
- Opportunity to show search engines that each site is clearly focused on one topic or geographical location, making each individual site more likely to rank for its topic or within its target region
- Opportunity to incorporate desirable keywords in each domain name—this “exact match domain” SEO tactic doesn’t carry the weight that it used to in the past, but it certainly does still carry some weight.
If you want to try to realize some of these potential SEO benefits, and are certain that you can handle the additional workload and budgetary investment required for optimizing multiple sites, then your next decision is how to deploy and start managing your multiple websites. That’s where WordPress Multisite comes in.
Using Multisite to Manage Multiple WordPress Sites
WordPress Multisite allows you to run multiple WordPress websites from one WordPress installation. This has some clear benefits, including:
- Only having to maintain one WordPress installation versus several. This means that things like core updates, plugin updates, backups, etc. only have to be done in one place.
- Technical SEO optimizations can be deployed across multiple sites at once. Google is always adding to the already-long list of things it wants site owners to implement, such as AMP, Schema markup, page speed optimizations, etc. Some of these can be very cumbersome to apply to a single WordPress installation, let alone several.
- Multiple sites can share a single theme in a Multisite network, making it easy to deploy design changes across several sites at once.
- Multiple sites can share plugins, making it easy to deploy new functionality across several sites at once.
- Multisite offers very granular control of user access rights. You can grant access to just one site, several sites, or all sites to a single user , and give them different access levels on each site.
Of course, these very same benefits of streamlined site management can present some downsides as well. Having multiple sites share the same theme can present design limitations for each individual site. Additionally, if a single plugin is shared across multiple sites, and something goes wrong with that plugin, all sites utilizing that plugin will be affected.
Despite potential downsides, many site owners believe that the benefits of Multisite outweigh possible limitations and issues. If you’ve decided that Multisite is right for you, you have one more major decision to make—whether to use separate domain names, subdomains, or subdirectories for the individual sites. Multisite networks support any/all of these configurations.
Choosing the Right Multisite Structure for SEO: Multiple Domains vs Subdirectories vs Subdomains
SEO-wise, using entirely different domain names can provide the “exact match domain” benefit mentioned above; however, this approach also means that you have to build up domain authority for each domain completely separately. Getting reputable inbound links is not easy, and it simply must be done completely naturally in order to adhere to Google’s strict Webmaster Guidelines. This means that a public relations strategy and/or very strong social media and influencer marketing strategies must be in place for each and every domain.
For global organizations that need a strong search engine presence in multiple different countries, a multi-domain approach with different country code top-level domains (aka ccTLDs), i.e. maindomain.au for Australia and maindomain.es for Spain, can be of particular benefit. These organizations typically have staff based in each region that handle their own local marketing efforts in each country. So, the challenge of building up inbound links for each domain can be significantly less cumbersome in this scenario than it would be for a smaller organization.
Using subdirectories, i.e. maindomain.com/site1, maindomain.com/site2, etc., eliminates the issue of having to acquire high quality links on multiple domains. It does not offer the benefit of having various “exact match domain” names, but in many cases, the streamlined link acquisition efforts is a benefit that can more than make up for having a variety of keywords in various domain names.
For an organization that has limited resources for public relations and social media efforts, the subdirectory approach can make more sense than having separate domain names—since search engines will see all the content as belonging to a single site.
However, this same benefit of multiple sites being perceived as one means that search engines won’t see each individual site as ONLY specializing content about one topic. So for a microsite strategy that intends to rank for keywords about a niche area of expertise, it may be better to go the multiple domain route to demonstrate tightly-themed topical relevance on each site.
Using subdomains, i.e. site1.maindomain.com, site2.maindomain.com, etc. is sort of a middle ground between the above two approaches. It offers the opportunity to use keywords in the subdomain name, yet have all sites share a main domain and therefore somewhat share inbound link equity across the network. However, search engines are aware that subdomains can be used to point to entirely different servers that host entirely different types of content, so domain authority still needs to be built up separately for each subdomain by acquiring reputable inbound links for each.
This can be a good fit for franchises or companies with multiple physical locations, where each individual location will be doing its own marketing efforts for its own site.
No Single Right Answer
As you can see, there’s no single best approach here. Different approaches make sense for different businesses. And the decision on how to set up your Multisite network gets even more complicated if there’s already separate domains or subdomains in existence. The decision of whether to maintain that structure, or whether to use the transition to WordPress Multisite as an opportunity to consolidate or change the structure, must take into account how long the separate domains or subdomains have been in existence, how much inbound link equity each has, and how much the keywords in the domains or subdomains seem to be having an impact on rankings.
Consider consulting with both an SEO expert and a web development expert before finalizing your decision on whether to create or continue to manage multiple websites, and whether or not WordPress Multisite is right for you. Each will be able to give educated perspectives on the web development and SEO considerations that apply to your own unique situation. The importance of SEO cannot be overemphasized, so investing in a little consulting up front can provide great benefit down the road.
About the Author
Pam Ann Aungst, M.B.A., President of Pam Ann Marketing, LLC and founder of Stealth™ Search and Analytics, is widely recognized as an expert in search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click advertising (PPC), and digital analytics.
A self-proclaimed “geek,” Pam began studying computer programming at 6 years old, started creating websites in 1997 and has been working professionally in the field of e-commerce since 2005. Referred to by Sprout Social as a “Twitter Success Story,” she harnessed the power of social media to launch her own agency in 2011.
Pam has been interviewed by publications such as Internet Retailer magazine and CBS Small Business Pulse. She guest-lectures at prestigious universities such as NYU and frequently travels around the country giving talks at industry conferences. Pam has been honored with several awards for her small business leadership and non-profit advocacy work, including being named one of “Jersey’s Best Marcom Professionals Under 40.”
Pam holds an M.B.A. in Marketing from Regis University, where she learned the cornerstones of traditional marketing strategy. She now combines that with her more than 12 years of professional experience to help established companies and “household name” brands take their traffic-driving and analytics strategies to the next level.