There's something nice about an ecommerce site that only sells one Thing (or one kind of Thing): The design of the site can be simple, clean, and easy to navigate; it can be totally focused on the Thing, making it feel like a boutique that really specializes in the Thing; and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) efforts can be targeted precisely at the Thing.
And, most importantly, all of the above can potentially increase your conversion rate (in layperson's terms, the percentage of your site’s visitors who actually buy your Things).
But what if you have an ecommerce business that actually sells lots of different kinds of Things? What if your ecommerce site looks like a miniature version of Amazon? How can you get some of the benefits enjoyed by smaller, more focused ecommerce businesses?
The answer may be a microsite.
A microsite, in this context, is essentially a “child” of a larger ecommerce site (the “parent” site). It has its own domain, which hosts its own front-end ecommerce shop, and it sells a subset of the parent site's products. From the perspective of an internet shopper it looks like a standalone site that specializes in selling a certain product or set of products. It can, if it wants, have a style and brand identity that is a sub-brand of – or even completely independent of – the parent site.
At a high level there are two different approaches to building a microsite. The main difference between the two is the relationship between the front-end ecommerce sites and the back-end product database(s).
Single Database Approach
In the Single Database architecture the parent and the child sites both use the same product database, with the parent site providing access to all the products and the child site providing access to a subset of the products. What's nice about this approach is that there's only one product database, so there is no need for data duplication or inventory synchronization.
The main challenge with this approach is that the big hosted ecommerce SaaS platforms (like Shopify) do not support it. In SaaS world each ecommerce site normally has its own dedicated product database – two sites can't share a product database. So you will probably not be able to use this approach unless you wrote your ecommerce code from scratch or are using an ecommerce software platform that supports this architecture natively.
In the Multi-Database architecture the parent site and the child site each have their own product databases. The child site's product database is a subset of the parent site's product database, meaning it contains a subset of the parent site's products.
With this approach there are some challenges around creating and maintaining the information in the two product databases and keeping the inventory levels (in-stock quantity counters) in sync. Fortunately, though, these challenges can be overcome fairly easily.
Normally the Child Product Database is created by exporting the desired subset of products from the Parent Product Database and importing them into the child site – this is usually very easy to do assuming you are using the same ecommerce platform for both the parent site and the child site. Each time you add a new product to your portfolio that you want to appear in the child site, you create the new product on the parent site, export it, and import it into the child site. And you can use a similar export/import process to keep the product information in the parent and child databases in sync if you update it.
The other thing you need to think about with the multi-database approach is inventory (in-stock quantity) synchronization, because in this model you are selling the same products from the same inventory out of two different databases, each with its own “in-stock quantity” field. So if you sell 1 unit of product from the parent site, you need to decrement the in-stock quantity of said product in the child site's database (and vice-versa). Luckily there are hosted inventory synchronization applications like Stitch Labs, for example, that can do this kind of multi-database inventory synchronization for you automagically.