The SEO lowdown on content hubs: A Q&A with Chicago Style SEO’s Rod Holmes

Over the past year or so, we have increasingly been in conversations with clients about the benefits and drawbacks of setting up a content hub—that is, an online, curated repository for all of a company’s content, from thought leadership and blogs to video and other media. This concept isn’t new; many companies have made sustained investments in promoting their thought leadership online.

What’s new is creating a content hub that’s separate from the company’s main website. This approach is often used to communicate to specific audiences or adopt a different editorial voice than the company’s brand. It can also be used as an end run around management politics or internal IT functions as well as a way to start fresh in the marketplace (say, to rebrand after a scandal).

Such decisions can have far-reaching repercussions on efforts to reach your target audience through organic search rankings. To get a better understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of content hubs from an SEO perspective, my colleague Alia Samhat and I reached out to Rod Holmes, founder of Chicago Style SEO. The following Q&A is an edited version of our conversation.

Leff: Walk us through the different ways that content hubs can be set up.

Rod Holmes: They can exist as a subpage on a company’s website (www.companyname.com/contenthub), a subdomain (contenthub.companyname.com) or as a separate domain altogether (www.brandedcontenthub.com). Google treats the latter two approaches as essentially a separate website. Google’s going to look at it and say, “They have to prove that they’re real; they have to prove that the content and their information is not spam, and we’re going to look at them with a jaundiced eye for a while until they do.”

Leff: So how long does it take for a new website to gain credibility in Google’s eyes. Weeks? Months?

Rod Holmes: Google’s algorithm measures over 200 different variables to decide where a website ranks in a particular search. But at the core of that algorithm is the concept that links coming from other websites to a page or to a site are a vote that the content on this page is worthwhile. A link to the home page is a vote for the organization, while a link to a subpage is a vote for the content on that page.

If you’re pumping out content and people are linking to it and there’s social media activity around it, it will take less time because Google has strong indications the content is useful to people. But the bottom line is that a subdomain or separate domain is essentially starting with zero links pointed at it, whereas the main company website already has authority with Google. The bigger issue is that when the new content hub gets links, only the content hub gets the benefit of those links—the main company website does not.

If a company were to make its content hub a subpage (companyname.com/contenthub/), then activity on that subpage registers as a part of the main company website. And then when a company launches a content hub, it would benefit from all the authority that Google had already given the main website. There are two main reasons for setting up a content hub in this way: 1) the main site benefits from links; and 2) the content hub starts life with the benefit of the authority the main site has and will get up and running faster.

Leff: So it sounds like if you’re going to launch a separate content hub, to make it visible to Google you have to publish a lot of content and promote it aggressively on social media to increase traffic.

Rod Holmes: But in doing that you are necessarily splitting the effort in promoting the main website and the content hub, so you’re splitting the SEO goodness between two different sites. That’s wasted effort.

Google is trying to find the best pages on the Internet that answer the question you’re posing to them. Links to those pages are called deep links—not a link to the home page, but deeper into the site. And deep links are incredibly valuable. Not only do they make that page authoritative in Google’s eyes, but then if you have a whole bunch of deep links to your content hub, Google looks at that and says, “This website has a lot of really great content because of all these links.” So the next time you publish another article, Google is expecting it to be good. So that’s another element they’re leaving on the table by segmenting their efforts.

Leff: For companies that have invested in a separate content hub and built it up so that it’s doing pretty well, at what point does it make sense to bring it under their main domain name to reap more benefits from SEO?

Rod Holmes: As soon as possible. One of our clients created a microsite on a specific topic of huge interest to its customers. It had a different domain and was a completely separate website. That website became more popular than its main website, with more traffic, more articles, more content. So they came to us and said, “We want to merge them together. What can we do?” We spent about three months doing research to figure out how best to do that because there was a lot of duplicate content on the two sites. So it wasn’t just a simple thing to do.

We then very strategically brought the content hub into the main site. So let’s say the main site had traffic of x per day, and the content hub had a bigger number, y. Six months after we put them together the traffic to the combined main site was not simply x plus y. It is now three times x plus y. And that’s because all the links and everything that were going to the content hub, a lot of that Google juice, that authority, was transferred to the main site.

Since all this great content and all these links were now concentrated on one domain, Google ranked it much higher. The company then started to get more—and more organic—traffic because of it.

From an SEO standpoint, a lot of companies rue their decision to create two separate online entities because it splits up their SEO efforts and confuses their audience.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of Leff. He's spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he's had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of "lean content creation" as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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