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Take Charge of Your Web Site: Three Simple Lessons for Business People by Richard Seltzer

(MightyWords, 2001)  Copyright © 2001 Richard Seltzer  The rights have reverted to the author.

You suspect that something is wrong—the results do not match expectations. You may be tempted to invest even more on design or on advertising or on both (not realizing that the expensive design you already have could be preventing people from finding your pages naturally). You feel out of control. You don't understand your options, don't understand how details of design can affect traffic. You may not even know what questions to ask. Hence you don't know what to tell the experts to do.

Here are a set of lessons that can help solve the problems of four kinds of business people:

  1. The independent professional with his or her own Web site.
  2. The CEO or marketing manager for a startup or a small focused company.
  3. The manager or marketing manager of a department or group within a large, diverse company.
  4. The Internet technical expert suddenly given broader responsibility.

Introduction: My Web Site Does Not Draw New Customers

You need to get the most out of Web pages that are critical to your business. You suspect that something is wrong -- the results just aren't matching expectations. You may be tempted to invest even more on design or on advertising or on both (not realizing that the expensive design you already have could be preventing people from finding your pages naturally). You feel out of control. You don't understand your options, don't understand how details of design can affect traffic. You may not even know what questions to ask. Hence you don't know what to tell the experts to do.

Here you'll find one set of lessons that can help solve the problems of four kinds of business people:

1) the independent professional with his or her own Web site
2) the CEO or marketing manager for a startup or a small focused company
3) the manager or marketing manager of a department or group within a large, diverse company
4) the Internet technical expert suddenly given broader responsibility

For example:

1) Jeremy Josephs, a freelance writer living in the south of France, was hoping that his Web site would generate new business worldwide. The site was slick, graphically attractive, and included the needed marketing words. But very few people found it, other than when he pointed them to it personally.

2) Coola, a startup with a quick and easy way to move specific kinds of content on the Web to the appropriate app on a palm device, needed to build a large audience quickly with a limited budget. They had "cool" pages and a great product that spread well by word of mouth, but the Web site failed to draw in new business.

3) Hitachi's Internet software business had a similar problem. Few people knew that this business existed, because it wasn't closely associated with the corporate brand. By corporate rules, they couldn't run their own separate Web site, and could not even advertise the specific URLs of their marketing pages. Ads could only point to the corporate home page where their products were buried among hundreds of other unrelated products. Very few people found them on the Web.

4) Anthony, a friend who is an Internet technical guru, began a new job where he is responsible for "creating order out of the mess they are using as an Internet." Suddenly, he has to decide what to do and why, rather than just how to do it. He needs to consider the broader implications of his technical decisions.

Business people in all four of these circumstances typically have two similar goals:

1) To provide the optimum user experience within the Web site, and
2) To make it easy for users to find their Web pages.

But the design team typically only pays attention to the first goal. Unfortunately, a  great Web site needs to draw customers.

Lesson One will give you the tools to diagnose your problem, what might be making it difficult for potential customers to find your Web pages -- and what you can do to fix it.

Lesson Two provides detailed, non-technical instructions on how to create Web pages and to create them so they can be easily found. Hands-on experience will give you insight into what is involved and what matters, making it far easier to communicate with the professionals who will design your pages on a daily basis. You will be able to tell them what you need and why, without being intimidated by techno talk, and will be in a better position to evaluate the related costs. Or, if you prefer, you can just do it yourself.

Lesson Three will give advice on how to publicize particular Web pages or the Web site over the Internet at little or no cost -- how to get the most out of what you have done.

Lesson One: Make Minor Changes To Your Existing Web Site

Start with the volume of your business. Has your Web site made a noticeable difference? Enough of a difference to justify the cost of building it, maintaining it, and advertising it? How many prospects have contacted you over the last six months based on what they found on your Web pages?

Are You Getting Less Web Traffic Than You Should?

Many Web hosting services run programs that analyze the raw traffic logs for your site and provide useful statistics and graphs. If your site does not have such analysis, you should do whatever you can to get it. At the very least, download a trial version of such software and run it from your PC (pointing it to the file on the Internet that contains your raw logs). For instance, you can download Traffic Analyzer from www.webtrends.com, and use it for free for two weeks -- which should be plenty long enough for you to diagnose your problems.

Check the traffic -- especially the page views (the number of Web pages seen) and sessions (the number of times visitors came to your site, regardless of the number of pages they looked at) for your whole site, for categories of content, and for individual pages. ("Hits" tend to be misleading, since each element that loads separately constitutes a "hit"; so the more graphics you have on a page and the more complicated your pages are -- and the more difficult they are to load -- the more "hits" you'll get, without that helping your business at all.)

Next look carefully at the "referrer" information -- where the traffic to your pages is coming from. The top referrers are likely to be search engines and directories, unless you are poorly represented there and depend instead on paid advertising.

With some statistical analysis programs (like WebTrends), you can see the queries your visitors entered at search engines that led them to your site.  Note the variety of unexpected phrases and combinations of words they used. That's why it's very important to have lots of content -- to catch prospects who have very specific interests that your pages match. You may also see "key words" -- single words that happened to appear in queries (regardless of how complex the full query was). These "key words" tend to be relatively useless (the, of, computer, etc.)

Also note any data about "visiting spiders." Those are robot programs (also known as "crawlers") that search engines use to gather information about content on the Web. Those statistics tell you which search engines (if any) are checking your site and how frequently they return. Keep in mind that if you have lots of pages, a crawler might, in a single session, look at all of them, inflating your page-view statistics for that day. To monitor your progress over time, subtract the spider/crawler numbers, so you are tracking only "real" visitors.

When you are familiar with your numbers and any trends they indicate, contact your counterparts at related non-competing sites (perhaps partners of yours) and learn what you can about their stats, to calibrate how you are doing. What might be great stats in one market niche could be terrible in another.

If after taking those steps you believe that your site your site is under performing, then consider factors that might be reducing your traffic and what you can do to change them. If any of these problems sound familiar, then the suggested "quick fixes" might help you turn your Web business around at little or no cost.

Diagnosis

Page design affects traffic in ways that you probably didn't realize.

Search engines learn what is available on the Web by sending out "crawlers" (also known as "spiders" or "robots" or "bots") -- programs that automatically perform the same kinds of functions as real users. These crawlers typically follow a trail of links. Each page that they fetch has links to other Web pages. They may follow the link trails at a particular site immediately or put those addresses into a queue to be visited later. If many Web pages outside of your site have links to pages at your site, your site will probably be visited often by crawlers and hence the content about your site in search engine indexes will be relatively current. If no one has links to your site (perhaps because your site is new), search engines may not know if you exist.

You can also submit your Web pages to search engines (we'll talk about the details of that in Lesson Three). But whether crawlers find you through links or because of your submissions, they bring back text and only text for inclusion in the search engine indexes. And they index every single word of text -- not just "key words" like a database or a directory -- and, in some case, even the order of the words, so users can search for phrases. If the words in your pages are embedded in graphics, the crawlers won't see them. If the words are automatically generated from a database or through a java script or some other dynamic means, the crawlers won't see them.

For a quick diagnosis of search-engine-related traffic problems at your site, go to AltaVista, www.altavista.com, a popular search engine that has some unique and powerful commands that can help you sort out what might be wrong.

If you have your own domain name (like genius.com), at AltaVista, submit the query
host:yourdomainname.com (using your real domain name)

If you do not have your own domain name, but rather have an address assigned to you by your Web-hosting service, like members.xoom.com/rseltzer; or your Web site is a directory of a corporate site, submit the query
url:members.xoom.com/rseltzer or
url:www.megacompany.com/productx (using your real address)

If you want to check to see if a particular directory (folder) or a particular page is included, use
url:
followed by the complete address.
(URL stands for "Universal Resource Locator." That means a Web address, in a form that looks like http://www.yourdomainnamet.com/sitemap.html).

Did you get any results? If so, how many? The pages that you see are all the pages from your Web site that are in the AltaVista index. Is that reasonably close to the number of pages you have at your site? If not, what's missing? And why might those pages be missing?

Consider these possible factors:

1) Have your technical people deliberately shut out search engine crawlers by using a "robot exclusion" file? The main objective of your technical staff is to make sure your site runs efficiently, and they might see search engine crawlers as a nuisance, a possible source of trouble. Unless instructed otherwise, they will naturally do everything in their power to reduce risk -- even if as a consequence, the beautiful Web site they constructed and maintain gets no visitors.

Quick fix: You need to talk to your technical people, understand their needs and concerns and make sure that they understand yours. Reportedly, in the early days of the Internet, the Internet Shopping Network was one of the very first online shopping sites. The marketing folks repeatedly submitted their pages to the major search engines, but even after many months none of their pages appeared in the indexes. The marketing people resorted to expensive advertising to try to generate the traffic and hence the business that they needed. Eventually, they discovered that a well-meaning Web designer had deliberately blocked all search engine crawlers from the entire site. The fix took less than a minute.

If there are particular parts of your site that you don't want indexed, it is a simple matter for your technical folks to edit their robots.txt file to block crawlers from just those parts, rather than from the whole site. And if they have reason to want to exclude one or more particular Web crawlers, they can do so by name, allowing other crawlers to enter. Compromise, be flexible. But make sure that your technical people understand your business goals, and that decisions of that kind are made with full knowledge of the marketing consequences, and what it might cost to make up the difference in traffic.

2) Does your entire site or a portion of your site require visitors to register? Perhaps your information isn't proprietary; you have no reason to keep it secret. You just want to keep track of who visits and want to ask them what they are interested in and how to get in touch with them. But search engine crawlers can't fill out forms. So as soon as they are required to, they halt -- and your site doesn't get indexed.

Quick fix -- Make registration an option, not a requirement. Let anyone click through on your links, but ask them to take the time to tell you about themselves. Make the benefits of registering clear to them (personalized pages, email alerts, more content that directly meets their needs, better service) or offer immediate rewards (e.g., a discount on their first purchase).

If you are using registration because you charge for your content, you need to understand that that approach is likely to reduce your traffic. You need to weigh the revenue you might bring in by charging for content, with the traffic you lose by doing so (both because of blocking search engines and also because some visitors will seek alternative free sources of comparable information). If the information value of your content diminishes over time, you might charge for current articles, and take advantage of the marketing value of your older articles by making them freely available to the public and to search engines.

3) Does your site generate "dynamic" pages? In other words, does it assemble pages on the fly from a variety of pieces? A typical symptom of that is a ? in the URL (page address). Designers typically use techniques of that kind to simplify site management. They might be able to change a single element that appears on thousands of pages, with a single command. They also use this approach to generate "personalized" pages -- a special view of the site that depends on user preferences or on what the user has seen before. When a crawler arrives at such a page, it captures the immediate text content, but halts, not following the links to other pages at the site. Otherwise, it could be presented with an "infinite" number of pages.

Quick fix -- In addition to what you do already (leaving your dynamic site alone), create plain static pages that have the same content as the elements used to build your dynamic ones. Link from each of those pages to a sitemap page (table of contents, with links to all your static pages), and to your dynamic home page -- as the best way to experience your content. But submit the sitemap page, instead of your home page, to the search engines.

4) Does your site use Active Server Pages (Microsoft technology that allows you to create dynamically-generated web pages)? In other words, do the URLs at your site all look the same and end with .asp? In that case, the page is just a script for the construction of a page, rather than static content. Typically, in that case, visitors who like your content may have trouble adding particular pages of yours to Bookmarks or Favorites. Sites that would like to link to particular pages of yours may have trouble doing that as well. And search engine crawlers may halt. (The results are likely to be erratic, so some sites wind up well indexed and others not at all.)

Quick fix -- Same as above: create plain static pages with the same content.

5) Does your site use Java or Java script to generate text on your pages? To check, go to a typical page and on your browser click View, then Source, and look for the word "Java". Perhaps only part of what the visitor sees is java-related. Perhaps the java-generated text appears in a separate box.

Quick fix -- If the java-related text is important (if it includes words and phrases that potential visitors might search for), then do as suggested above: create plain static pages with the same content.

6) Does your site use "frames"? With this design technique, typically, the same graphics (and link choices) appear along the edge (typically the left and/or the top) of each and every page. For instance, links to the main sections of the site might appear down a column on the left and at the top of the page you might see a banner ad or info about a special offer. Inside the window framed by those repeated elements, you might see one or more "panes." Frames do not prevent pages from being indexed, but they can lead to some very strange results. Search engines will typically index the outside of the frame and each pane of the frame window as separate pages. So when search engine users click on an item in a results list, they see just the frame or just the pane that matched their query -- not the full page as it was designed to be seen. What they see might be confusing because it's out of context. They probably won't see the links that were supposed to be associated with the content. And the overall look and feel is sure to violate your branding guidelines.

Quick fix -- Create non-frames versions of those same pages, and be sure to link to them all directly from a plain static sitemap page, and submit that sitemap page to the search engines.

7) Does your site have audio and video files? While multimedia content can hold the visitors attention and provide a memorable experience, the audio and video cannot be indexed by typical search engines, which depend entirely on text. Text is essential.

Quick fix -- Provide plain text transcripts for your audio and video clips. Link from the transcripts to the sitemap page and to the related audio/video files. And, of course, link from the sitemap page to the transcripts.

8) Does your site put important content in Acrobat and PostScript files? For instance, many large business sites present white papers and even press releases in acrobat (.pdf) form, so they can control the look and feel, and make it very much like the related printed piece. But search engines cannot see any of the text of files in those formats.

Quick fix -- Provide plain text versions as well.

9) Do you have a "flash" page -- multi-media effects that dazzle visitors for a few seconds before automatically moving them to the real Web site? Regardless of how impressive and eye-catching such a page can be, it blocks search engines.

Quick fix -- When you submit your site to search engines, point to your sitemap page, not your flash page.

10) Does your site use redirection -- sending people to one page and then automatically moving them to another? "Redirection" is a trick that porn sites frequently use to catch the attention of people who didn't intend to go to such a site. So most search engines block sites that use redirection, in order to maintain the integrity of their indexes and to make sure that their users in fact get to the kind of content they are asking for.

Quick fix -- Be very careful in the use of redirection. Do not put a redirect anywhere in the likely path of a search engine crawler. Best would be to use a robot exclusion file to prevent any crawler from seeing such a page.
Most search engines follow the rules of the Robot Exclusion Standard and hence will honor commands they see in a file named robots.txt found in the top-level directory of your Web server or in a robots metatag in the markup code for a particular page.  For details on how to do that see http://doc.altavista.com/adv_search/ast_haw_avoiding.html

For example, a robots.txt file consisting of just two lines
User-agent: *
Disallow: /thisdirectory/thispage.html
would prevent any crawler that abides by the standard from looking at a page named thispage.html in a directory named /thisdirectory.
Ask for help from your technical people or your Web hosting service to make sure you do this right. You don't want to inadvertently stop crawlers from seeing the pages that you want them to see.

11) Is your site based on the assumption that your visitors want to see new content every day? Is that what keeps your site lively and interesting? Do you, therefore, delete your old information, or move it to different (archive) directories? If so, while the content may still be available at your site, the old URLs simply won't work. That means that you are confusing the search engines and tripping your fans, who want to point their friends to what they've found useful and who want to bookmark and link to good content.

Yes, it might be convenient to keep plugging new content into old URLs (e.g., www.retailstore.com/specialtoday.html), and to clean out old material, like useless debris. But you need to think first of the convenience of your users, rather than your staff. For generating traffic, old content has greater value than new content -- because it takes time to get embedded in the navigational infrastructure of the Internet (as people create bookmarks/favorites, and link to it, and as it gets included in search engine indexes.)

Quick fix -- Make it a strict rule that once you have posted a Web page, you never change its URL. (By the way, don't use an old URL for new, totally unrelated content. Otherwise, you'll annoy people who come looking for one thing and find something different.) If old content is no longer valid (for instance, you have dropped that product line), keep the page up, but add text explaining the change and a link pointing visitors to the latest and greatest information/product.

12) Does your site use encryption for security? In that case, the URLs typically begin with https:// instead of http:// Search engines cannot see encrypted pages.

Quick fix -- Ask yourself: do all the pages at your site need to be encrypted? Or only certain sections (like customer account information at a banking site)? Redesign, keeping encryption to a minimum.

13) Does your site have very little text content? Search engines only see text, and the more text they have indexed from your site, the more likely users searching for unpredictable phrases and combinations of words will see your pages high on their lists of matches.

Quick fix -- Start writing and hire writers. The more text the better -- and not just random words, but useful relevant information that your visitors can benefit from. (Search engines "sniff" for pages that have been randomly constructed from "keywords" by "search optimization" companies, and blacklist those pages and sometimes entire sites.)

Keep in mind that these "quick fixes" are "quick" from a technical perspective. From a political perspective, they may be very difficult indeed. Many large corporations have branding rules and Web site standards that prohibit taking these simple and easy steps that could boost traffic to your site and generate new business.

In Lessons Two and Three, you will create your own personal Web pages on a public Web site that has nothing to do with your company. There you will experiment to learn what's really involved in creating Web pages, making them findable, and promoting them over the Web. Doing so should help you understand the implications of Web design decisions on Web traffic and put you in a better position to design simple Web pages yourself, or to let your technical team know what you want and why (and what you are willing to pay for it), or to influence whoever you must to make important changes in your corporate Web site.

More symptoms to watch for

Take another look at your search engine results list (host: or url:). Look at the words that are used for the hyperlink (the title). Do you see the same title appearing more than once? Or do you see some pages labeled "no title"?

Keep in mind that Web pages have three kinds of "title." There is the file name -- the last element of the URL, such as pressrelease.html -- which has no effect on search engines. There is the headline -- the words that appear in prominent type at the top of the page itself -- and which search engines treat as ordinary text, with some extra attention because it's at the start or near the start of the page. And there is the HTML title -- the title that appears near the top in the "source" of the page between <title> and </title>, that appears at the very top of the browser window, above the tool bars, and that is used by search engines as the title to link from in a list of results. Some page designers pay little or no attention to HTML titles (in part, because the page creation tools they use assign them automatically or ignore them). But from the perspective of search engines, the HTML title is the most important of a Web page.
How many times have you clicked on a page labeled "no title"? How do you know which page is which when several have the same title? And what do you think of sites that use meaningless, apparently random sets of words for titles?

Each page should have its own unique, clearly descriptive HTML title. It should be the job of the people who understand the content and who write the pages to write those titles -- don't expect the designer to come up with the words you would like to see. Once you decide on those words, the designer can easily insert them.

Also, take a look at the 2-3 sentence description that appears with each item in a list of matches. Do several of your pages or even all of them have the same description?  The default description is typically the first few lines of static text on the page. If those words are likely to be meaningless (for instance, on a page with lots of graphics, and a few words associated with each), the designer can insert a "description metatag" with alternative words for the use of search engines. Unfortunately, many designers simply attach the same metatag to all the pages in a given part of a site or in the entire site.

Once again, designers are typically not writers. You need to give them the descriptions -- a different one for each page. Better still, write and design the pages themselves so the most important content appears at the top (like in a newspaper article). Let text, not graphics prevail. Then, there's no need for description metatags, and, as we'll discuss in Lesson Three, your pages will be likely to appear higher on search engine match lists.

Remember, the home page of a Web site is very different from the cover of a magazine. The art on the cover of a consumer magazine is very important -- that's what attracts customers who see it displayed on a news stand. But on the Internet, nobody sees your home page until they've decided to go there. The artwork and flashy effects don't bring traffic; they simply make your pages slower to load, getting in the way of people who want to get to your information and products.

You're not getting older, you're getting better

Now go back to the AltaVista home page and click on Advanced. (Today the link is near the top of the left column, but they frequently change the look and feel of the site).

In the top box (labeled "Boolean query") enter the same query you did before, beginning with host: or url:

Then enter dates in the From: and To: boxes (using European date format dd/mm/yy). Test to see the age of the pages in the index.

If your site has been around for a while, you might find pages that are 3-5 years old, perhaps with embarrassingly obsolete information.

Do not delete those old pages. In fact, if you find that search engine indexes still include old pages that have already been deleted from your site, do everything you can to get those pages back online, with the same URLs as before.

While the information value of content decreases over time (as it become outdated), its marketing value on the Web increases, as more search engines include it, as more people bookmark those pages and link to them. Do not throw that value away.

When you have new products and information, link from the old to the new (and include appropriate explanations), but do not delete the old. That way customers who have the older products or have heard good things about them, will have an easy path to follow to learn about the new ones and how to migrate.

Think of content on the Web as a marketing asset, and pay attention to technical details that could impact its marketing value, rather than abdicating responsibility for all such details to the technical staff.
 

The Missing Link

From the home page at AltaVista, search for
+link:yourdomain.com -host:yourdomain.com
or (as above with url:)
+link:members.xoom.com/rseltzer -url:members.xoom.com/rseltzer
or
+link:megacompany.com/productx -url:megacompany.com/productx

This query will show you which pages (and how many pages) outside of your site have links to pages at your site.

You can even fine tune the search, to look for pages with links to individual pages of yours, e.g.,
+link:yourdomain.com/tutorial.html -host:yourdomain.com

The more links the better, especially links from well-respected sites and sites that deal with related content. These links can drive additional traffic to your site and also (for some search engines, like AltaVista and Google) can raise the ranking for your pages (making them appear higher in search result lists).

If you have few links to your pages, do searches to find related sites and contact the webmasters offering to exchange links with them.

If you have many pages linking to yours, assign someone to check them all -- those are potential allies and partners. NB -- At AltaVista you typically only see a maximum of 200 matches (20 screens of 10 matches each). To see more than 200 (which you might very well want to do for link:), use Advanced Search, with the syntax
link:yourdoman.com AND NOT host:yourdomain.com
and after the 20th screen you should be able to keep clicking on "next" to see more.

If you recently reorganized your site, changing URLs (a definite no-no, as discussed above), and if you can't resurrect those old addresses, then search for links to the old addresses, and let the webmasters know about the changes so they can fix their links.

In Lessons Two and Three, you will sign up for your own personal Web space and experiment with pages that you create and post there. What you can do on your own will give you a point of comparison for measuring the success and cost effectiveness of your business site, and give you some ammunition for your discussions with technical experts and bureaucrats.

Lesson Two: Build No-Cost Web Pages

There are many  Web hosting services that will give you free space where you can post your pages. And if you can create a document in Word, you can create Web pages -- simply and easily, using the same software you already use every day.

This is a very important exercise. Don't just read this chapter. Act on it.

If you make your own personal Web pages and put them together in your own site and then let the world know about your site, you'll begin to understand what your company could and should do, and what's really involved. You'll be in a much better position to talk to the technical staff and let them know what you need and why. And you'll also be better able to judge the amount of work involved, and what you should be willing to pay for such work.

If all you do is type plain text (leaving fancy details to support staff), that's fine. The words, not the formatting, are what really matter on Web pages  because of the free traffic search engines can bring to your site. You can learn how this works using Web pages that you create on your own.

If you want to control the look and feel of your pages (the layout, fonts, etc.) rather than leaving that up to the choice of the user, and if you use Word 2000, then all you'll need to do to get the same effects on a Web page as you do in your Word document is simply to save your file as an ".html document" or a "Web page."

Even if you are a Webmaster for a major corporation, you should create personal Web pages to experiment with -- free of corporate procedures and constraints. Later you might want to adapt techniques that you learn on your own for corporate use.

You could do a site devoted to your family, your hobby, your club, a family-member's team, a family-member's little business, or a non-profit organization. What matters is that you create a set of pages, each of which does a necessary job, and all of which work together to produce results. For suggestions, see my article "Okay, I have Web space. Now what am I going to put there?" in my book The Social Web.
 

Picking a Web Host


Today, most ISPs (including AOL) offer their customers free Web space -- typically 10-50 Mbytes. (10 is enough room for about 30 copies of Huckleberry Finn). You can also go to sites that specialize in providing free Web space, such as Xoom (now part of nbci.com), Geocities (now part of Yahoo), Tripod (now part of Lycos), and Angelfire.

In many cases, in exchange for the "free service", ads will appear on your pages; and/or you'll be saddled with a variety of limitations -- like having to use the templates provided by the service.

And unless you pay a premium to have your own domain name (e.g. www.ourdomainname.com), your Web address will be of the form members.xoom.com/rseltzer. And you will probably be assessed charges for your "free" space if your pages turn out to be popular and attract significant traffic (measured in the amount of information transferred in the course of a month -- a typical limit is around 1 gigabyte, which is a lot of text, but very little in terms of sound or video files).

But the prices for some professional Web hosting services -- without limitations -- are quite low -- in the range of $10 to $20/month.

When shopping for a service, keep in mind that you want the ability to create pages on your own, without templates and without databases. Beware of page creation "wizards". You want to be in control of what you create and how it looks both to individuals and to search engines. You also want to be able to transfer files to the Web server using "ftp" (file transfer protocol) from your PC or "fetch" from you Macintosh. To do the page creation and Web promotion activities recommended in this lesson and the next one, you are going to need that kind of flexibility.
 

The Costs


Unless you work for a large company that runs its own Web servers, before making or recommending significant changes in your Web site you should check to find out the limitations and charges imposed by your hosting service.

For instance, you may be charged based on how much disk space you use or may only be able to use up to a certain limited amount of disk space for your Web files.  You also may be charged for the traffic to your site (measured in gigabytes transferred per month).

You need to keep these factors in mind when deciding what to do to improve your Web site. For instance, if you are going to go to great lengths to improve your traffic, you need to know if that's going to significantly affect your costs.

Also, now is a good time to reconsider your long-term Web plans.  As more and more Web users get high-speed connections (cable and DSL), you might want to  add lots of graphics, audio, and video. But keep in mind that multimedia files take up far more space than text. A novel the size of Huckleberry Finn takes up about 300 Kbytes, and a minute or two of just audio (time to read just a couple pages of text) would take up that same space. If you are limited to 50 Megabytes by your Web host, a short video clip or two could use up all your space. And every time a visitor accesses one of those large files, you get charged not just for the visit, but for the number of bytes involved. Some commercial Web hosts offer a base of 1 gigabyte of transfers per month, and charge for more than that. If you have reasonable traffic and multimedia content, you could easily pass that base line in a few days.

Keep in mind that other reasonably priced Web hosting services (e.g., $10 to $20/month) have no limits on Web space or on traffic. This might be a good time to consider your options. As long as you have your own domain name, moving your Web business to another host can be relatively quick and easy. And so long as the hosting service provides 24x7 support and a toll-free help number, it doesn't really matter how far away they are physically located. (I recently switched from an ISP that is nearby in Massachusetts to www.hispeed.com in California. The transition was smooth, taking just a couple days; and now I have unlimited Web space to experiment with.)  

Microsoft


About five years ago, Microsoft came out with a great software patch -- the Internet Assistant and made it available for free from their Web site. You could download this software and on installation it would modify you copy of Word 6.0 or Word for Office 95 so you could use it to create Web pages -- simple and powerful pages, with all the most important features, and no frills. It was easy to learn and easy to use.

Now, if you love Word, you'll love the kinds of Web pages you can create with Word 2000. Even footnotes convert easily and automatically, all appearing at the end of the page, automatically generating links from the footnoted point in the text to the footnote itself and then back again to that same point in the text. Create the document the way you want in Word, then click File, Save As, give it a File name: that ends in .htm or .html, and in Save as type: select Web page (second in the list, just under Word document). The conversion to HTML happens automatically, and your tool bars change, giving you Web-only options that you didn't see before. Like it or not, Word is today's de facto standard for word processing. So we have to live with it.

Basic Principles of Page Creation

In this lesson we are going to focus on the simplest and most effective type of Web page -- static pages with lots of text.

Today's Web is based on text. Yes, there are interesting audio, video, and graphics there as well, but the heart of the Web is still text. Text is what search engines find, and search engines are the primary way people find Web pages. Plain text pages can be viewed with any browser. They load very quickly. They take up a minimum of disk space. And they involve small data transfers (if you are limited or are charged for traffic.)

Also, keep in mind that the Web is global, and plain text is easy for your foreign visitors to translate automatically for free through services like babelfish.altavista.com.

Text is also easily accessible by the blind, who use non-graphic browsers and text-to-voice conversion devices.

And text pages are easy to create and edit. You can do it yourself or you can teach other people in your company to do it. No technical skills are required.  

Web Page Essentials

Whatever software you use to create your pages, the two most essential elements are the HTML title and the hyperlinks (links).

HTML Title

Every Web page (document) has at least three names:

First, you assign a file name to the document on your PC and, for simplicity, you should use that same file name on the Web server. These file names should end with .htm or .html, and when you save these files from Word, you need to be sure to save them as "html document" or "Web page".

For example, on your PC, you might name a file c:\web\resume.html. Then when you move it to your Web server, the URL (Web address) of that page will be the domain name or directory (folder), followed by a forward slash and the file name. For instance, http://yourdomainname/resume.html (Note: Microsoft uses backward slashes \ in file names. The Web uses forward slashes /.)

Second, you should give the text on your page a headline -- like you would any article. The headline appears in large type and in bold at the top of the page and tells what is most important on this page, often using clever and intriguing wording, meant to encourage the visitor to read on.

Third, and most important is the HTML title. This title should also say what's most important on the page, but without the cleverness -- just tell it straight. The HTML title does not appear directly on a Web page. It is part of the header information in the code. When you go to a Web page the HTML title appears above the tool bars of your Web browser in small type (you might not even notice it). But when you do a search at a search engine, the HTML title appears as THE title in the list of results, the words that are linked to the pages that match your query. HTML titles are also the most important part of a page for search engine ranking -- determining which pages appear near the top of a results list. If the words in a query appear in the HTML title, rather than just randomly in the text of a page, that page gets high priority.

We'll talk about the mechanics below (how to add an HTML title varies from one version of Word to another). But you should always include an HTML title, and choose those words very carefully. Do not use all upper case -- some search engines are case sensitive. It's best to use lower case except for words that are always capitalized.

You might also want to prefix each HTML title with a word that helps identify your site. That will make your pages stand out in bookmark/favorite lists. (e.g., Kensbikes mountain biking tips; Kensbikes fixing bicycle brakes)

Hyperlinks

Links connect one Web or one part of a Web page with another. They are a shortcut for having to type in the entire URL. The highlighted words you click on to go from page to page are links.

You will want to have links connecting your various pages -- referring people who read one page to related information on another page, also referring people who found a page in the middle of your site to your home page and/or a sitemap or table of contents for your site. (NB -- thanks to search engines, most people will not come to your site by way of your home page. They will come to the specific page that had the content that matched their query. Hence all your pages should let visitors know the context of what they are seeing, telling them where they are and how to navigate elsewhere in your site.)

You should try to make it as easy as possible for visitors to get to what they want quickly, without having to click repeatedly. If you have a sitemap page with links to every page at your site, and if every page has a link to your sitemap page, than visitors should be able to go from any page to any other page in just two clicks.

In general, large pages are far more useful and valuable that small ones. Search engines tend to give them more weight (ranking), and they are easier for visitors to print, than if the same content were divided up into many small pages. If you have a large page (dozens of typed pages long), you can include a table of contents at the top, with internal links (which Microsoft calls "bookmarks") to different sections.

You also can/should include links to complementary sites that have related information (and ask the Web masters of those sites to link back to you).

Web Page Cosmetics

If you know Word, you already know how to handle all the cosmetics of simple Web pages. The same functions for headlines, bold, italic, underlining, ragged right, justified right, bullets, numbered bullets, and horizontal lines work just fine -- whether you create your document as an html document to begin with or you create it as a normal Word document and convert it to html. You can even insert pictures into your Web pages just as you do into your Word documents.

Microsoft Word

 

Different Versions of Word


Word 6.0 and Word for Office 95

If you use an old version of Word, you will need to download and install a piece of software before you can start to make your own Web pages. But don't despair. Once you have taken care of that quick installation, you will be much better off than folks with more recent, less useful versions of Word.

Go to AltaVista (www.altavista.com) and enter the query wdia204z.exe. That's the file name of the "Internet Assistant," a free piece of software that modifies your version of Word so it can handle the .HTML format of Web pages. It was originally available from Microsoft. Then Microsoft dropped it from their site and hundreds of other sites made it available. Now it's back at Microsoft again. The search should take you right to the page you need for the download and the installation instructions.

If you are creating a document from scratch, start a new document and immediately save it as HTML Document (File, then Save As, then select from the drop down menu next to Save as type:). If you are starting with an existing document, just open it in Word, save it as an HTML document, and the software will automatically convert it to the new format. In either case, give the file a name with .htm as the suffix (not .html) Both .htm and .html work fine for the Web. Browsers will treat files with either of those names just the same. But this version of Word was limited to file extensions that are just three characters long.

All your basic formatting should convert easily or you can add it to your document using the usual Word commands. But don't try from footnotes and fancy effects. If those kinds of things are important to you, you should invest in Word 2000.

Once your document is saved in HTML format, you will see a new set of commands in your tool bar. The two that are unique to Web pages and essential to you are represented by icons: the letter "i" for the HTML title, a picture of a chain for creating links, and a picture of an open book for making "bookmarks" (internal links).

For the title, simply click on the "i", type in your title, and click OK.

For links, highlight the text that you would like to link to by clicking once and dragging your cursor over it, then click on the chain icon. You will see the text you highlighted (and can edit it) in the line marked Text to Display: Enter the URL (Web address, in its complete form, such as http://www.yourdomainname.com) that you want to link to in the box labeled "File or URL:" If you are linking to the same pages repeatedly, you can save a little time by clicking on the down arrow to see what you have entered recently, and clicking on the address you want. To link to an Internet email address instead of to a Web page, enter the address preceded by mailto:, such as mailto:seltzer@samizdat.com

Microsoft uses the word "bookmark" to mean internal links, or links to locations within the same page. That's confusing (perhaps deliberately so) for people who use Netscape as a browser, and think of "bookmarks" as saved links to pages you'd like to go back to (which Microsoft calls "favorites"). To create such an internal link, first click once at the point in the document you would like to able to return to easily (such as a chapter or section title). Then click on the open book icon, type an arbitrary name (one word, consisting of letters, not numbers), and click on Add. Then highlight the words that you like to make the link from (for instance the reference to that chapter/section in a table of contents at the top of the page), click on the chain icon, and enter the name of your "bookmark" in the line labeled Bookmark Location in File:

That's all you need to know.

Word for Office 97

If you have Word for Office 97, either open an existing document or start a new document and save it as HTML Document, with either .htm or .html as the file extension. (This version of Word can handle four-letter extensions).

The tool bar changes, but this time only one of the three key commands has its own icon -- this time a chain link superimposed on a globe.

To assign an HTML title, you have to click File, then Properties, then enter the title on the Title: line, and click OK.

To create a bookmark (internal link), first click once at the point on the document that you would llike to be able to return to easily; then click on Insert, then Bookmark, enter the name (one word, consisting of letters, not numbers), and click Add.

To create links, highlight the text that you want people to click on by clicking once and dragging your cursor over it. Then click on the chain/globe icon, and enter the full URL (Web address, such as http://www.yourdomainname.com). If you want to link to another place in the same page, in the line labeled "Named location in file" enter the name of the "Bookmark" you created, or click Browse and select that bookmark from the list you see. Click OK to finalize what you've done. To link to an email address, enter mailto: followed by the address.

Word 2000

Word 2000 is overcharged with automation, which some users will appreciate, and others will find very annoying.

The toolbar remains constant in this version. Regardless of whether you are creating a Web page or a Word document, you will see the chain/globe icon that is used for creating hyperlinks. In fact, if you start typing a Web address (with the characteristic @ sign) or a URL (starting either with http:// or with www.), this version will highlight that address automatically and automatically make it into a link. If, like me, you find that annoying, you can shut that feature off by clicking on Tools, then Autocorrect, then under the tab for "Autoformat as You Type," remove the check mark next to "Internet and network paths with hyperlinks" under "Replace as you type," and under the tab for Autoformat also remove the check mark next to "Internet and network paths with hyperlinks" under "Replace".

When you save a page (File, Save as), the second item in the drop down menu of file types is "Web page (.htm, .html)". Be sure to give you document a file name with either .htm or .html as the extension.

To create an HTML title, click on File, then Properties, and under the tab Summary enter your title on the Title line and click OK.

To mark the site for an internal link (bookmark), first click once at the place in the text you want to return to, then click Insert, Bookmark, and enter the name (one word, just letters, no numbers).

To create links, with your cursor, highlight the text to be linked, then click on the link/globe icon. Your selected text should appear in the top line (Text to display). To link to a Web page, you can enter that address in the line marked "Type file or Web page name," or click on an address that you have used in the past in the list that appears, or if you have a live connection to the Internet, click on "Web page..." That last option will launch your Web browser. Go to the page that you want to link to, minimize that browser window and the URL of that page will automatically appear in the URL box (that's a good way to avoid typos when linking to pages with  long URLs). To link to a location in the same document (bookmark), highlight the words where you want the link to start (for instance in a table of contents), click on Bookmark, then click on the name of the bookmark which you have assigned to the target location. To create a link to an email address, click on email address in the lower left corner, then either type in the address (and the software will automatically add "mailto:" or click on an address from the list of suggestions.

Yes, you can do many more things that are fun and eye-catching. But this is all you need to know to create effective Web pages, pages that people can easily find and easily access from anywhere, with any browser.
 



Lesson Three: Publicize the Web Site Effectively

 

As a beginner at making Web pages you will undoubtedly make mistakes. Don't worry. You can always take a page down and post a new version. Think of what you are doing as drawing on a sidewalk with chalk. You can easily erase it and start over. Dare to try new things. You might want to  experiment with a new identity -- using a Web-based pen name, and referring people to a free email account (that you can get at sites like Hotmail and Yahoo), rather than to your personal or business email address. These pages are yours -- not subject to corporate rules or social constraints. Experiment freely, until you feel well grounded in what is possible not only in terms of creating pages, but also in publicizing them.

Then focus on a topic that you are truly interested in and committed to; and, as a long-term project, make a site devoted to that. Then your focus should gradually shift from your own creativity to building relationships with the visitors to your site and finding new ways to help them and meet their needs, and what you learn should be directly applicable to your online business.

Free online publicity falls into two categories: mechanical and personal. Mechanical includes directories and search engines, which typically should bring a site more than half of its traffic. Personal includes participation in email discussion groups, newsgroups, forums, chats, and expert sites.
 

Directories


Directories are hand-constructed categorized lists of sites, sometimes including brief descriptions. Some focus on very narrow subject areas. Others -- like Yahoo and the Open Directory -- cover just about everything on the Internet.

Yahoo has a paid staff of editors who review submissions from Web site owners. The Open Directory has thousands of volunteers doing the same work. Both now include over a million sites each.

While Yahoo is a well-known brand, few people have heard of Open Directory. But the Open Directory is embedded in the directory results of many popular search sites. Both are very important, and you can submit your information to both of them for free. Go http://docs.yahoo.com/info/suggest and http://dmoz.org  In both cases, you'll be asked to scan through the available categories (which are amazingly detailed), pick where you think you belong, and write a description a few sentences long. Keep in mind that that description will apply for your entire site, whether it consists of one page or ten thousand pages -- so choose your words carefully and with an eye on the direction you want your site to evolve in.

Don't expect immediate results. Recently, the Open Directory has been taking 2-4 weeks to add new sites; and Yahoo typically takes 2-4 months. You can pay Yahoo to get your site considered sooner, but without any guarantee that you'll wind up in the directory. Also, LookSmart, a much smaller competitor, with ties to some major search engines, now charges $199 for site submissions.  

Search Engines

Search engines typically index the full text of every page that they find -- and some include hundreds of millions of pages.

People using directories go straight to your home page and then have to hunt to find the specific information that they want. But people using search engines may come to any public page at your site -- whatever page has the words that match the query. Only words on Web pages matter -- not submitted descriptions.

If you follow the guidelines in Lesson Two, you should be in good shape -- with pages designed in such a way that search engines can see the text, with HTML titles that clearly indicate what each page is about, with large pages rather than small ones, and with a sitemap page that has links to every page at your site. You should also pay attention to the first couple lines of text on your pages -- making sure that they too are clear and to the point. Search engines will use those lines as the default for the description to appear with a listing of that page in their match lists.

If you talk to technical experts they will probably tell you to create keyword and description "metatags". Don't. There's no need for that (no need to learn what a metatag is). They serve as crutches for Web pages with designs that are ill-suited for search engines. Having built your pages right, you don't need them.

You also probably have been bombarded with spam from search engine optimization services. Once again, you don't need that kind of help. They tend to focus on "keywords", but search engines don't use "keywords" -- they index every word on every page.

You could also pay for "sponsored" positioning at a handful of search sites like GoTo and their partners, which "auction" top placement on searches for particular "key words".

But once you get going and check your site statistics with a good program like WebTrends Log Analyzer, you'll clearly see that the people coming to your site are entering multi-word queries. People looking for single, general "key words" like network or education or sports are likely to be clueless surfers, rather than people with a serious interest in what you have to offer. And, any case, they will never find you among the many millions of Web pages that mention those words.

Instead of paying a search engine optimization service or for sponsored positioning, and instead of reading up on all the latest ways to try to trick search engines, you should devote your energy to creating and posting more and more useful text. Text is what really fuels search engines.

Getting traffic on the Web is a random game, like rolling dice. You can try to load the dice by paying for advertising or paying for positioning at sites that allow that. Or you can roll more dice, which is what you do by adding more text content. You have a lot better chance of rolling a 6, if you are throwing dozens of dice than if you are throwing just one.

Search Engine Submissions


You should submit your sitemap page, not your home page to the major search engines: AltaVista, Google, Alltheweb (AKA Fast Search), Northernlight, Excite, Hotbot (which also gets you in a number of other, smaller search sites all of which use the same Inktomi index), Lycos, and DirectHit.

Others are either too small to matter or charge for submission, or both.

Don't waste your money on a search engine submission service. You can submit your site to the top eight in less than a quarter of an hour.

Email Discussion Groups

Many people build email distribution lists (for groups of friends and associates) and send messages to all of them as a group, rather than individually. Special software makes it easy to build public email lists -- allowing people to add themselves (subscribe). In some cases, the software also gives all subscribers the right to send messages to all other subscribers. In other cases, messages go to the list owner who then decides whether to forward particular items, or perhaps to edit and combine messages in digest form before forwarding them over the list.

Go to Liszt www.liszt.com (Yes, that isn't a typo -- it's spelled like the name of the Hungarian composer. They list tens of thousands of email discussion groups. You can search through their database, or click your way through their cascading categories. Look for groups that relate to the main topic of your Web site, subscribe (for free), and carefully read the rules/procedures for that group. You'll start getting email from other members. If what you see seems useless, unsubscribe and try others. If the discussion is on target and catches your interest, join in. And every time you send a message to the list include at the end a brief "signature" which tells people who you are and also points them to your site.

Some of these groups are wide open. Others have moderators. Actively participating in or even running such a discussion is a great way to become known as an expert or enthusiast in your main area of interest, and also a way to make friends and build relationships with others who have similar interests.
You could start an email discussion group from scratch, building your own email distribution list (including only people who ask to be included), and periodically sending out a newsletter or compendium of the email you receive from members. You could use one of the free services like Topica www.topica.com or eGroups (which was just bought by Yahoo!) http://groups.yahoo.com/local/news.html

Newsgroups


Newsgroups are collections of messages (postings) addressed to a group of people with common interests. There is no distribution list (as we email). Messages are sent to particular groups, and anyone with the appropriate software can go to any group, see what's there, and participate.

Go to Deja www.deja.com (formerly known as Dejanews). There you can search through tens of thousands of news groups, each of which probably have thousands of postings. These are the candid comments of individuals on every subject imaginable. You can register at Deja and participate in the discussions from there; or, if your ISP gives you access to newsgroups, you can also read and post from your Web browser, from OutLook Express, and a variety of other programs.

A few newsgroups allow and even encourage you to talk about and promote your products and services. But most do not. Before posting to any group, read lots of recent postings to get a feel for what is appropriate. And try to make your first postings responses to other postings -- get involved in the existing dialogue, begin to act and feel like a member of the newsgroup community.

Once again, you can and should include a "signature" that briefly points interested folks to your site.   Forums


Forums

(AKA Web boards or bulletin boards) are Web pages where you can post your opinions and comments about a selected subject. The site owner sets the topics, and typically moderates the discussion (deleting off-topic items; and sometimes blocking access to the rare folks who seriously misbehave). Go to ForumOne www.forumone.com, to search among thousands of forums for ones that match your needs.

These discussions tend to be less active and more focused than email distribution and newsgroups. But if the topic is right on target for you, or involves the leaders in your field, you want to be there both to learn from what's said and also to become better known. Once again, use a signature file to unobtrusively let the others know about your Web site. If this form of online community suits you particularly well, you might want to start one of your own, for instance using the free facilities available at Delphi www.delphi.com

 

Chat


Chat -- real-time live discussion over the Internet -- can be either spontaneous or planned. If you are online a lot, you might want to add HumanClick to one or more of your Web pages. This free app from www.humanclick.com makes it easy for visitors to your site to talk to you, on the spur of the moment. That's a great way to turn a casual visitor into a customer or partner, or simply to have an interesting discussion. Or you might want to plan and promote discussions on particular topics with particular guests to take place at scheduled times -- either using free chat room facilities at major portal sites (like Yahoo), or special software that you could run at your Web site (and that your web-hosting ISP might make available to you). I've been running weekly chat sessions about Business on the Web since June 1996, and post the transcripts at my site, where they provide valuable content, attracting lots of visitors.
 

Expert Sites

Some Web sites act as go-betweens connecting people with questions with experts who have answers. Some of these sites cover narrow topic areas; and others, like AllExperts (where I'm signed up) and Abuzz, try to cover the world. These experts volunteer their services, for the benefit of becoming known as "experts", making contact with potential customers, and pointing more traffic to their sites.  Give them a try.

Content Syndication


If you find that you are regularly writing new article-style material for your site each week, you should contact iSyndicate and apply to have your "column" added to the broad collection of material that they offer to other Web sites on a syndicated basis. At their base level ("Express"), they provide links to your articles for their subscribers, which boosts your traffic. They also offer some material in full-text form, to be posted on subscriber sites for a fee, which they share with you.
 

Tips for Monitoring Progress


As your site and its audience grow, go back to AltaVista periodically and search (as explained in Lesson One) to see how many of your pages are in the index and to see which sites have linked to your pages. You can also go to TracerLock www.peacefire.org/tracerlock and sign up for free for email alerts when there are new results at particular search engines for queries which you preset -- such as, at AltaVista:
+link:yourdomain.com - host:yourdomain.com

And do whatever you can to get access to a good Web site statistical program, so you can keep a close eye on how many people are coming to your site, where they are coming from, and what pages they are looking at.

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