Webmaster by Chuck Musciano

Building better site visibility

How do you go about increasing your exposure on the Web?

September  1998
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This month, Chuck Musciano takes a look at something we all struggle with: how to maximize the number of visitors to a Web site. Chuck offers practical advice about page design, search engine registration, cross-linking, and advertising. (2,100 words)

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The Web is a funny thing. A few years ago, only the geekiest among us knew anything about it, and the idea that non-computer people would have any interest in it at all was unthinkable. Unlike most previous societal fads, however, the Web has quickly become an integral part of our culture. So much so that nowadays almost everyone at least knows what it is and how it might be used.

This was really brought home to me recently when I got a call from my Uncle Max. Uncle Max just retired to the North Carolina shore after a successful career running his own construction company. His knowledge of the Web is pretty much as deep as my knowledge of operating heavy equipment, so I was taken aback when I heard why he was calling: It seems his Web pages haven't been generating enough hits, and he wanted to know how to make things better.

It turns out Uncle Max has some prime North Carolina waterfront property he wants to sell. Local newspaper ads weren't reaching his prospective market, so he contracted with a local ISP to put up some Web pages describing his property. With high hopes, he waited for a response, but heard nothing. After several months, he decided his pages weren't working effectively and turned to me for advice.

Uncle Max has a problem far too many Webmasters are familiar with: his site's valuable information is being lost among the millions of other pages on the Web. You know someone out there needs the information you're providing, but you just can't seem to get your pages in front of the right audience. Fortunately, there are a number of steps everyone, including Uncle Max, can take to increase their exposure on the Web.

Understanding the problem
Before you change anything on your site, you'll need some information to help you understand what, exactly, is causing the problem. There are a lot of reasons why your site isn't producing the desired results. Without some foundational data, you won't know where to begin fixing the problem.

To start with, determine the number of visitors to your site. If you're hosting your pages on another Web site, you'll have to work with its Webmaster to obtain the statistics for your pages. The Webmaster may run reports as you need them and bill you for the service, or some basic information may be included as part of your usage fee with additional data supplied at added charge.

If you're running your own site, you can use any of a number of popular tools to sort through your access logs and count the visitors to your pages. Whether you gather the data yourself or have it provided to you, make sure you boil it down to determine the number of qualified hits on your pages. We'll cover useful statistics in a future column, but for now you need to make sure you know how many people visit your site each month, and it may help to know where those visitors are coming from.

You'll also want to check your pages to make sure they work on the most popular browsers. This may sound obvious, but lots of people create pages that look wonderful on their own browser and leave it at that. If you switch to a different browser, or to the same browser on a different system, you may find that everything falls apart. Make sure you test your pages on Netscape versions 3 and 4, Internet Explorer version 4, and America Online versions 3 and 4. This might require enlisting the help of friends on differing systems, but the effort will be well worth it if you can ensure that your pages are usable on a wide range of browsers.

Once you know your pages work, and you have a baseline figure for the number of visitors to your site, you can start considering ways to increase your visibility on the Web.

Creating attractive pages
Pages we call "attractive" work in two ways: Visually stimulating pages attract more visitors, true, but it's also important to understand how to design content that attracts a wider range of visitors. The former is easily accomplished with the aid of a qualified Web designer or graphic artist; the latter is more a matter of black magic and good luck.

With the Web as big and as broad as it is today, one of the most important ways to bring visitors to your site is to make your pages easy to find within a search engine. In this sense, attractive pages must have the right mix of keywords and content to increase the likelihood that the average user, with a typical set of keywords, will find your page upon querying a search engine.

As the number of Web pages has grown, this has become increasingly difficult. In the case of my Uncle Max, his pages feature terms like North Carolina, waterfront, and property. If you go to a site like Northern Light and search for those terms, you'll find 1,988 pages of potential hits. However, the addition of his last name (Carozza) reduces that number of hits to just two: his two pages.

The trick to effective placement within a search engine is making sure your pages carry the right words and phrases in the title and body content of the page. Much lore exists as to how you need to place and repeat these words, but it generally isn't necessary to do anything beyond just getting all the right words (and hopefully, a few distinctive, unique ones too) on your page. Make sure you have an effective title, and make sure you include a <meta> tag to define the keywords that describe your page. For example, Uncle Max might want to add a tag like this to his pages:

 <meta name="keywords" contents="waterfront,
property, North Carolina, water, shoreline, boating, real estate,
dock, fishing"> 

All these keywords are reasonable words to expect someone searching for waterfront property to use. To come up with the best list of keywords for your site, try thinking as someone trying to find your page might. What keywords would you use to locate a page offering waterfront property for sale?


Getting registered
When you have your pages looking good to both people and search algorithms, you need to register them in as many engines and site indices as possible.

In the olden days, this wasn't too difficult, since there weren't an overwhelming number of search engines and link collections. I remember getting my first pages registered on Yahoo by sending e-mail to the two founders, who were still grad students back then. In general, you could spend an afternoon sending out a few dozen e-mails, and you'd soon find your pages in all the major engines.

Nowadays, manual registration is almost impossible. Given the thousands of search engines and link collections out there, just keeping your site registered in the most prominent places could easily amount to a full-time job.

The good news is that a number of registration sites have sprung up to help you manage this process. For a fee, these sites will automatically register your site with anywhere from ten to several thousand search engines. For example, a company like Cyber-Pro will register your site with 100 search engines for $19.95, 400 for $39.95, or over 1,000 search engines for $79.95. It will also re-register you every month for six months at no additional charge. This re-registration can be important, keeping your site more visible to the engines as the page count continues to grow.

Paying a fee for site registration is probably a good idea. Considering that it would take you hours or even days to find and register with all these sites, even $79.95 is a pretty good deal. And remember, if those registrations increase your page hit rate by the thousand, you're only paying pennies for each additional hit.

Cross-linking with others
While search engine exposure can be helpful, often the best way to get seen on the Web is to take advantage of what the Web is best at: linking and connecting documents. If you can manage to get your pages hyperlinked to other pages, people who find those pages first may decide to pay your site a visit as a result.

Most people, other than those in direct competition with you, will be willing to create reciprocal links, wherein you link to them and they link to you. To get the ball rolling, look for pages that might attract the visitors you want to reach. If you find a page interesting and inviting, contact the author and offer to cross-link. Of course, you'll need to make sure your pages are similarly interesting. While not everyone is willing to cross-link, even just a few good links can dramatically increase the hit rate on your pages.

The best thing about cross-linking is that it's almost always free. It's also nice to take advantage of what the Web was created for: people working together to make information more available.

Explicit advertising
When all else fails, you can try real-live advertising for your site. This gets a little more complicated, and you'll have to try your hand at ad banner creation, but it can pay off nicely in increased visits.

Advertising can be free. One popular method takes the cross-linking idea to the next level: ad exchange. You carry selected sites' ads and they carry yours. Some systems, like LinkExchange, support ad banner rotations among thousands of sites. Every time you display a banner to a visitor on your site, you earn credit towards placing your ad on other sites. To participate in LinkExchange, you'll need to design your own ad banner, register with LinkExchange, and modify your pages to carry ad banners served to you from LinkExchange. The idea is simple, implementation is easy, and you can get lots of hits with a relatively small investment of time and effort.

If you have really deep pockets, you can pay to have your ad placed on any number of sites. This gets expensive and is really only suitable for commercial sites that can recoup the cost of advertising through goods and services sold on their pages. Even so, Internet advertising has rapidly matured into an effective way to reach general or targeted audiences, and you might want to consider it. You'll have to go through some sort of Internet ad broker to get broad ad placements, but you may be able to contact some sites directly for specific advertising needs.

Will it work?
Does any of this work? Yes, and no. You can almost always increase hit rates by improving your pages, registering with search engines, cross-linking, and advertising. Will those extra visitors be the right people to buy your product or take advantage of your information? There's no way to tell. I'll be passing these tips on to Uncle Max, and I'll let you know in the coming months if he sees increased hits on his pages -- and more importantly, if he sells that property.

Since we're covering advertising and increasing sales, it seems to be the right time for a blatant plug. The latest edition of my book, HTML: The Definitive Guide from O'Reilly and Associates, is in the stores. Like the best-selling first and second editions, the third edition covers every last nit and detail of the HTML standard, along with every browser extension we could find.

The latest edition also covers the HTML 4 standard, along with Netscape Navigator 4 and Internet Explorer 4. If you need one book that covers every last aspect of HTML, this is it.


About the author
Chuck Musciano has been running various Web sites, including the HTML Guru Home Page, since early 1994 -- serving up HTML tips and tricks to hundreds of thousands of visitors each month. He's been a beta tester and contributor to the NCSA httpd project and speaks regularly on the Internet, World Wide Web, and related topics. Chuck is currently CIO at the American Kennel Club. Reach Chuck at chuck.musciano@sunworld.com.

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