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Webmaster by Chuck Musciano

Site promotion: Blowing your own horn

If you build it, will they come? Here's how to leave a trail
of bread crumbs leading back to your Web site

October  1996
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Getting your site up and running is only the first step. Attracting and keeping an audience for your pages is a never-ending job. (1,950 words)

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Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, Web sites only exist if people visit them. It does you no good to create the greatest site on the Web if no one knows about it. Unfortunately, many Webmasters concentrate on their site design and creation skills and never think about site promotion and marketing.

A Web site is like any other commercial product. The fundamental goal is to sell the site to as many people as possible, encouraging them to take the time to visit your pages. Given that people have a finite amount of time and that the number of sites is effectively infinite, you must provide a compelling reason for people to spend a portion of their time finding and visiting your pages -- instead of the millions of others available. In short, it's time to put down that Java book you've been memorizing and to start thinking like a marketeer.

Web marketing and advertising is no different from their conventional counterparts. There are distribution channels, competing products, name recognition, and market demographics to consider. While the Web may alter the way you deliver your advertising message, the message itself is no different than if you were selling soap instead of sites.

This month, let's look at three common ways to market your pages:

  1. Site registration
  2. Reciprocal linking
  3. Direct advertising

Site registration
In the beginning, there was Yahoo!, a collection of links maintained by two grad students in California. Yahoo! grew and grew and suddenly lots of people began creating similar sites. Initially, the site creators would spend their days surfing the Web, adding links to their collections in an effort to make their collections the biggest and best. Getting your site included in these collections took no effort; often, you would find yourself included automatically.

As the Web exploded, the index sites made a drastic change. Since they could no longer surf the entire Web, they instead began soliciting sites for inclusion. They would inspect the candidate site and, if they found it worthy, add it to the collection. Nowadays, getting your site included in the index sites takes a lot of effort and perseverance. Making it into some index lists is considered an honor.

While a few index sites (Yahoo!, Lycos, Alta Vista, and InfoSeek, to name a few) continue to catalog the entire Web, many more sites have reduced their focus to a subset of the Web. There are sites solely dedicated to online businesses, or Web authoring, or personal home pages. While far less famous than their more all-encompassing brethren, these content-specific index sites can really help your site, if you fit their mold.

All of these sites work in the same way: you submit your site for inclusion, they examine your pages, and if they are found worthy, your pages are added to the site. Periodically, your site is revisited by a spider to freshen your entry in the index. Thus, you have three tasks to accomplish to successfully advertise yourself in an index site:

  1. Create compelling content
  2. Submit your site to the appropriate index sites
  3. Make your pages amenable to automatic examination

I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that your site is the greatest thing since transparent backgrounds. With that out of the way, you need to submit your site to as many appropriate index sites as you can find. There are three ways to do this:

  1. Locate the sites manually
  2. Use a free site submission service
  3. Use a commercial submission service

I prefer the first two, although those of you with large, well-funded sites may choose to go with a professional promotion service such as Regional Marketing Concepts.

One of the best ways to find index sites is to visit the WebStep Top 100, a list of the 100 best index sites. Each site is listed with a brief description, letting you decide which site is best for your advertising purposes. You can then jump to each site's submission page, fill out the form, and then move on to the next site.

If the thought of working your way through 100 different sites is too daunting, you'll want to try an automated service such as Submit-It. Submit-It accepts your site's URL and description and then submits your site to a number of popular index sites. You'll still do some work, but the process is much easier. You might also find Entity, the self-proclaimed "exposure tool for the serious developer" a useful site promotion tool.

When you've finished registering your site, you need to prepare it for searching and indexing. This means making sure that your top-level page contains text that accurately describes your page, and including a few <meta> tags to provide keywords and a description of your page. The tags are easy to create and should be placed in the <head> of your pages. They look like this:

   <meta name="description" content="A description of your site">
   <meta name="keywords" content="comma, separated, list, of, keywords">

Take care to select good keywords and to provide a clear, concise description. For many index sites, your description is the only thing a user will see before deciding whether to visit your site. When choosing keywords, try to think of words someone might use when they are trying to find your site. If you are selling kumquats, for example, potential keywords might be "kumquat, citrus, fruit." (Look at the source code of this column to see another example.)


Reciprocal linking
While site registration is a good way to give your site broad exposure to a huge audience, your site will often be lost in the shuffle with thousands of other sites. A way to create links to your site that will be seen by a smaller, more interested audience is to engage in reciprocal linking.

The premise is simple: find sites similar to yours, contact the owners, and offer a link to their sites from yours in exchange for reciprocal links. Both parties benefit, with the assumption that a visitor interested in one of your sites would be inclined to visit the other as well. Done correctly, reciprocal linking creates tightly coupled "mini-Webs" of similar pages.

Be careful, though. Don't exchange links with sites that are your direct competitor, and don't so overload your site with reciprocal links that your real message gets lost. You'll also want to periodically visit your linking partners to make sure they are still carrying your link.

Direct advertising
Finally, a great way to attract visitors is to place advertising for your site on other sites. Your initial reaction, I'm sure, is one of disbelief, since few of us can afford to buy time on other sites. With the advent of the Link Exchange, however, free site advertising is available to anyone on the Web.

The Link Exchange works on a simple concept: you carry Link Exchange ads on your site and in return the Link Exchange places your ad on other member sites of the Exchange. Each time a visitor to your site views a Link Exchange ad, you earn one-half a credit. For each full credit you earn, you get one ad placement on some other site.

The Link Exchange was created by Tony Hsieh and Sanjay Madan last March. Their simple idea has taken off like wildfire, with 15,000 members of the Exchange displaying ads on 40,000 different Web pages. Every day, servers at the Link Exchange serve up 1.5 million advertisements. By registering your site with the Exchange, some of those ads could be for your site.

Doing the math, you'll see that the Exchange displays member ads only half the time. The remaining half of the ads are for the Link Exchange itself and paying clients of the Link Exchange. While not yet profiting, Hsieh and Madan eventually hope to sell enough advertising to support themselves and the Exchange. By offering your site as an ad carrier, you get free advertising for your site subsidized by the paying Exchange customers.

The Link Exchange is a typical Web success story. Just months after creating the service, Hsieh and Madan found their NT server and T1 connection swamped. They've since upgraded to multiple parallel servers running a modified version of the Apache server atop BSDI Unix and access the Internet via a redundant T3 connection.

To participate in the Exchange, you need only register your site, add a few lines of HTML to your pages, and supply a banner ad (40x400 pixels) for your site. Immediately, ads will begin appearing on your pages, and your ad will appear all over the Web. When viewers click on your ad banner, the Link Exchange redirects their browser to load your page, drawing visitors to your site.

The Link Exchange provides several services to support its members in their quest for more visitors: online forums are available, letting members share tips and tricks about site promotion and advertising; real-time statistics help you track your ad placements and the number of times a person "clicks through" the ad to visit your site; and, most importantly, the Exchange provides a list of graphic artists who can help you design an effective ad banner for your site.

A good banner is critical to your advertising. Much debate goes on among Exchange members about what makes the most effective banner. To help you create yours, several banner creation firms will create your banner for free, asking only that you credit them somewhere on your pages. Since the Exchange lets you change your banner at any time, you can experiment with different advertising styles until you find the banner that draws the most people to your site.

Bringing it all together
For the most effective site promotion, you can't choose just one of these strategies. Instead, you must use all three. Certainly, registration with the popular index sites is absolutely required. Building a good relationship with a few sister sites can also bring the crowds to your doorstep. And finally, employing direct advertising, either through the Link Exchange or via a commercial advertising firm, will really boost your site's hit rate.

I've had good luck with all of these techniques at my site. If you try any or all of them, send me a note and I'll share success and horror stories in a later column.

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About the author
Chuck Musciano has been running Melmac and the HTML Guru Home Page for two years, 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. His book, HTML: The Definitive Guide, is currently available from O'Reilly and Associates.

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