The Micro site dilemma: One site or many?

When you have a large website should you keep it as a unified whole or allow it to be broken down into a series of micro sites?

Play

I spend most of my life working on mega sites that are often made up of smaller micro sites. Mega sites are:

  • Extremely large,
  • Many levels deep,
  • Made up of many micro sites and subsections,
  • Catering to many audiences,
  • Entered at many different points.

Sites like this have many unique challenges from internal politics to complex navigation. However, one area that causes the most internal debate is visual appearance.

Mega or micro sites?

The argument goes something like this. The central marketing team wants to present a consistent brand to the world. They see the organisation as a single entity trying to engage with a diverse audience. However, the various divisions across the organisation see things differently. They see the organisation as being made up of many value propositions aimed at smaller, more specific audiences. They want content relating to their offering and aimed at their audience to be branded separately.

This problem is most pronounced in organisations that are:

  • Naturally devolved (like a University),
  • Who are made up of a number of acquisitions,
  • Whose products have a stronger brand than the company itself (a good example of this would be a company like Unilever).
Unilever Brands
Companies like Unilever with a number of strong brands often fracture into multiple sub sites.

A turf war over micro sites

Unfortunately in my experience companies rarely confront this problem head on. Instead there is an ongoing turf war between the centre and the individual divisions. Unsurprisingly the web (and users) are caught in the middle of it.

In some organisations the centre wins with branding becoming centralised. The website ends up presenting a unified vision of the organisation. Apple is a good example of this, with their website providing an incredibly focused vision across all of its products and services.

Screenshots of different Apple micro sites
Apple enforce a consistent look and feel across all of is products and services.

Other organisations are the complete opposite, allowing divisions to dictate their own brand. Instead of a single mega site they build an inter-connected network of smaller sites. Microsoft is a good example of this, with no design consistency existing between micro sites like Microsoft.com and xbox.com.

Screenshots of different Microsoft micro sites
Microsoft take a different approach to Apple, allowing each of their brands to operate separately designed sub sites.

At first glance you would be forgiven for thinking that a unified mega-site like Apple provides a better user experience. Although this can often be the case it is not always so. These huge mega-sites have increasingly complex navigational challenges and it is easy for users to become lost when all the pages look very similar.

Micro sites that still conform

Of course we are not just limited to these extremes. Other companies have found a middle way. Virgin for example allow their brands to create separate sites and yet strong use of their corporate colour helps maintain unity.

Screenshots of different Virgin micro sites
Virgin uses colour as a tool for unifying their various websites.

However, an even better example is the BBC. From my perspective they hit the sweet spot between uniformity and overly prescriptive conformity.

When you look at the BBC micro sites, you will see different design styles aimed at different target audiences. However, there is a definite uniformity across each site in terms of navigational positioning, typography, grid system and stylistic elements.

Screenshots of different BBC micro sites
The BBC maintain consistency through navigational, typography, grid system and stylistic elements.

This has been achieved through the creation of a Global Experience Language. This design language is used across all BBC sites and ties them together. However, it still provides enough flexibility for individual divisions to stamp their own brand on a site and cater for the specific needs of their audience. Best of all this approach does not undermine the user experience across the sites because of a consistent approach to navigation, layout and functional elements (such as a carousel).

Not that the approach is without its downsides. It requires a central team with enough authority to enforce the design language (something that some organisations just don’t have) and yet it still has the costs associated with designing essentially separate sites.

That said, I believe there is a lot that larger organisations can learn from this approach and that it could be used to resolve a lot of internal politics.

Headscape

Boagworld