Promoting Your Web Site
Can't you just hire an expert to promote your site for you? Certainly. Many
people offer Web site promotion services for a fee. In fact, having someone help you with your site promotion is not a bad idea, at least if you find the right person. But even if you use a professional submitter, you need to know the basics of site promotion.
The first reason is that there is a lot of misleading, inaccurate and just plain fraudulent information out there. The business of promoting Web sites is as thick with shysters and scam artists as the used car business. Many a Web site owner has paid big money to some sharpie who made wild promises, only to get little or nothing for their money. The sad part is that many of these
site owners never even know they've been taken - their nice new Web sites are simply getting no visitors, and they don't understand why not.
The second reason to educate yourself is that site promotion is an ongoing process. To maximize your site traffic, you need to monitor it constantly, and make judgements about what you can do to improve it. If you know at least the basics of how the process works, you'll be in a good position to decide whether it's best for you to hire an outside consultant, train someone in your company, or simply do it yourself.
Before proceeding further, let's define some terms.
Traffic - The number of people who visit your site. The more of this you get, the better. Whether you're selling something online, putting out information about your company, or whatever, more traffic means more potential sales. If you don't promote your Web site, your traffic will probably hover around zero.
Promotion - Anything you do to increase your site traffic. This includes site submission, advertising, sending out press releases, etc.
Submission - The process of notifying the various search engines and related sites about your Web site.
Search Engines - Sites that people use to search for information on the Web. This is the primary way that people find Web sites, so a Web site owner needs to know as much as possible about search engines and how they work. Although some popular sites such as Yahoo are more accurately described as "directories," the term "search engines" is often used to include all sites that act as tools for people to find other sites.
Submitting to Search Engines
What's the first step in promoting your Web site? Submitting to the search engines? Not quite. Good Web site marketing is something that begins with Web site design. Your site should be designed with promotion and marketing in mind. You'll see why, once you understand how search engines work.
There are millions of Web sites out there today, and the total number of pages must be in the billions. How do people find the information they want? By using search engines and directories. True, some people type in URLs they got from a TV or magazine ad, or that some guy whispered to them on a street corner, and quite a few find sites by following links from other sites. But the majority of Web surfers find stuff using one of the most popular search engines: Yahoo, Excite, Altavista,
Google, Lycos, etc.
Each of the search engines is slightly different, and people have their favorites, but they all work in basically the same way. The user types in a word or a phrase, hits "search," and is rewarded with a list of links (the "search results") that hopefully have something to do with what's being looked for. The words the user typed in are called "keywords," and the search engine finds links by matching these keywords to ones found in its database.
Do you suppose the search engine actually visits every site on the Web to see if it can find the keywords, every time someone does a search? Nope. That would be like Santa Claus visiting every house in the world every Christmas Eve. No, the way it works is this: a search engine has a database, which lists every Web site that the search engine knows about. When a search is performed, it tries to find matches in the database for the keywords entered.
As a Web site owner, you want search engines to send you as many visitors as possible. Therefore, you want to make sure that you are in the databases of as many search engines as possible. This is pretty simple.
Most of the major search engines allow you to register your site free. You can simply go to each major search site, click on "Add Your Site," "Submit URL," or something similarly worded, and fill in your site information.
As this is a rather tedious process, there are several tools available that will automatically submit your information to several search engines at a time. Instead of visiting all the sites and copying and pasting in the same info a dozen times, you simply enter it once, and the "auto-submitter" sends it to the search engines. Auto-submitters include SubmitIt (submitit.com) and AddIt (addit.com). All these services offer a basic free service, with additional features available at a small price.
As long as you follow their rules, and don't attempt to "spam" the engines with multiple submissions, most or all of the major search engines will be happy to list your site in their database (although they may be less than punctual about it). So far so good, but this by itself isn't enough to make sure your site gets noticed. Think about what happens when you search for something at a search engine. Unless your search term is something really unusual, the engine will come back with dozens, if not thousands, of links that matched the search term. Of course, they aren't all displayed on one page. Only the top 10 or 20 results will be displayed, with a link at the bottom to click on to see the next 10 or 20 (most search engines allow the user to specify how many results will be displayed on a page). Guess what? Most people seldom or never click on the link to see the second page of results, much less the third page or the thirty-third. If your site doesn't come up near the top of a particular search, then it almost might as well not be in the database at all.
When someone searches for something that has to do with your site, you want your site to come up as near the top of the list as possible. In other words, you want to optimize your ranking with the search engine. This obviously makes the next question "How do search engines determine rankings?" The answer has to do with keywords.
Using Keywords to Maximize Search Engine Positioning
Search engines use the number and relative importance of keywords to determine how a page will rank in a particular search. For example, if someone searches on "butterbeans," then a page which is titled "The Butterbean Bazaar" and has the word "butterbeans" on it in a dozen places is likely to rank near the top of the list. A site that has the word "butterbeans" on it once or twice will rank somewhat lower. A site that has the word "beans" on it will rank near the bottom, and beanless sites will not make it into the search results at all. Every search engine has its own formula for ranking search results, and they're as jealously guarded as secret barbecue sauce formulas. The basic idea, however, is that the more instances of a certain keyword a page has, the higher it will rank in the results of a search for that keyword. Also, greater weight is given to keywords that appear in things like page titles, section headings, and so on.
This well-known fact has led many smart-alecky souls to load their pages down with endless repetitions of words like "sex," "free," and whatever else they think people search for. Every sneaky trick in the book, like invisible text, keywords hidden within HTML tags, etc. has been employed in the mad rush for higher rankings. Such ploys are counter-productive, however. If everyone chose to use excessive and/or inappropriate keywords, then search engines would quickly become useless. Sooner or later, no matter what you searched for, all you would get would be MLM and porno sites. Therefore, the search engines wage an ongoing battle against "keyword stuffers" and "spamdexers." If they suspect you're trying to abuse the system, they can and will bar your site. As just one example, many search engines will disqualify any site that uses invisible text.
The point of all this is twofold - in order to maximize your rankings at the search engines, it's important to be sure that your pages include plenty of appropriate keywords. However, it's also important not to overdo things, and do harm to yourself in your zeal (see How to Avoid Spamming the Search Engines) This is why we said earlier that submitting to search engines is not really the first step in site promotion. The first step is designing your pages to be "search-engine friendly." This means not only using keywords appropriately, but also avoiding certain design techniques that can confuse search engines, such as frames and certain types of dynamic page delivery.
The proper use of keywords can be an arcane subject, and we won't get into the fine points here. Basically, what you need to do is to think of all the words that someone might type into a search engine if they were looking for a site like yours. Visitors who aren't looking for butterbeans (or whatever it is you have) do you no good, so pick only keywords that relate to what your site is about. Normally, most or all of these keywords will be found in the text of your site. Once you have a list of keywords, you want to craft a site description that uses some of the keywords. This should be a brief (many search engines have a limit of 25 words), readable sentence that sums up what your site has to offer. For example, if you're selling butterbeans, and you've come up with the following list of keywords:
Then a good description might look like this:
"We sell butterbeans and lima beans, which taste great with biscuits and other Southern cooking. Free butterbean recipes and a butterbean discussion forum."
Notice how we worked in all the most important keywords (in reality, your list of keywords should probably be longer, perhaps 10 to 20 words or phrases), and we even managed to mention the most important one, "butterbeans," twice. However, the description reads like a normal sentence, not just a list of keywords. Notice also that we mentioned a couple of site features that might entice people to visit.
Craft your site description carefully, because it will be used in several places. When you submit your site to the search engines, you'll be asked for a description. This description will come up when someone finds your site in a search, so make sure that it will make people want to visit (but never use marketing copy like "The leading company…" or "The most useful site…"). This description, or a variation, should also be used in your TITLE tag.
The TITLE tag appears in the HEAD section of your HTML page. When a surfer views a Web page, it is the TITLE that appears in the top bar of the browser. If someone selects your site to be a "bookmark" (Netscape) or "favorite" (MS Explorer) in their browser, the TITLE will appear as the name of the "bookmark" or "favorite." Also, some search engines assign greater weight to keywords that appear in the TITLE tag. Your TITLE tag should begin with the official name of your Web site. It should also include a very brief description of the site. For example: <TITLE>The Butterbean Bazaar - We sell butterbeans and lima beans, and offer free butterbean recipes and a butterbean discussion forum.</TITLE>
Resist the temptation to make your TITLE a mindless list of keywords - it will hurt more than it will help. And never include useless verbiage like "Welcome to the Web Site of…" in a TITLE tag. It's a waste of important virtual real estate.
There are two other tags that appear in the HEAD section which are important to site promotion: the META DESCRIPTION and META KEYWORDS tags. Some, but not all, search engines use these tags to determine your ranking. The rules for the META DESCRIPTION tag are basically the same as those for the TITLE tag, although it's fine for the two to be slightly different. The META KEYWORDS tag is basically a list of keywords. There's nothing to be gained by packing this tag with an endless list of words - most experts believe that the search engines don't index more than a certain number. Pick the ones that you really think people are going to use to search for sites like yours. Most of the gurus agree that these keywords should be all in lowercase, separated by commas or spaces.
The most important place to include keywords is in the body text of your pages. Again, don't go wild - write in a normal, readable style. But be sure that your most important keywords are mentioned at least once or twice, and consider using some of them in page headings and subheadings.
Ready to submit?
Well, we've mixed up the order of things a bit, but it's necessary to understand how search engines work in order to realize why keywords are so important. Once you've got your pages nice and optimized, make a final system check before you start submitting. Never submit your site to the search engines until it's 100% ready for the public. See the article Before You Submit for a list of things to check before you submit your site.
As we mentioned earlier, there are actually two different kinds of search site, which are often lumped together under the term "search engine." A search engine proper uses an automatic software agent called a "spider" to search (or "crawl") the Web for sites to index for its database. Theoretically, it's not necessary to submit your site to spider-based search engines, because the spider will sooner or later find your site on its own. Of course, no wise Web owner would leave such a critical matter to chance, so you can and should submit your site to all the major search engines. It's only necessary to submit your home page, however - the spider will automatically find and index all the other pages by following links. Although the search engines hate (and punish) overzealous souls who try to use tricks to get more listings, they have nothing against autosubmitters (at least the major ones), so I recommend using one to save yourself a lot of tedious work.
At the risk (nay, the certainty) of repeating myself, here is a fact that may save you a lot of wasted time. There are not, repeat not, a thousand, or even a hundred, search engines that are worth submitting to. Yes, there are thousands of sites claiming to be, or wishing to be, search engines, but most of them are simply attempts to get your money, or to get your email address so that they can send you spam. Almost all search engine traffic goes to the top twenty or thirty search engines. Submitting to all the piddly little ones is a complete waste of time, and will net you only spam. The exception is specialty search engines, which focus on a particular topic or geographic area. They are well worthwhile, and will be discussed in more detail later.
The most important "search engine" of all is more accurately described as a "directory." This is Yahoo, by far the most popular search site on the Web. A directory does not use an automated spider to find sites to index. Instead, real human beings comb through the trillions of sites submitted to choose which ones are worthy of being listed. For the searcher, this is good, as it means that Yahoo includes far less flotsam and jetsam than search engines do. For the Web site owner, it's not so promising, because Yahoo is very hard to get into. If you do get in, you'll see your traffic climb immediately, so it's well worth putting some time in to try to get listed.
Resist the temptation to submit over and over - it won't work. Submissions are reviewed by real editors, so follow their instructions to the letter, and really try to convince them that your site is a useful resource. Some good tips are to be found on the rather obscure page called "How to Suggest Your Site," and selfpromotion.com also has some good Yahoo tips.
Another directory that's very important is the Open Directory (http://directory.netscape.com/). It's far easier to get into than Yahoo, and unlike Yahoo, it's pretty easy to get listed in multiple categories, or to have several pages from your site listed (assuming that they really have different types of content). You shouldn't use an autosubmitter to submit to Yahoo and Open Directory. Take your time and craft your submissions carefully to these two important sites.
After You Submit
Submitting to search engines is a bit like washing windows - some panes just don't come clean without some extra scrubbing, and they all get dirty again. Getting listed can take anywhere from a few days to a few months. Sometimes a search engine just won't list your site at all, for reasons which elude even the most expert Web promotion gurus. For this reason, it's absolutely essential that you check all the search engines a month or so after you submit. If you're not in there, submit again. Don't forget our warnings against spamming the engines, but resubmitting every month or two is not likely to anger them.
Some search engines may drop your site from their database for reasons unknown, and some place older listings lower in their rankings. Also, if anything changes on your site (as it should), then the search engines should be instructed to reindex your site. For these reasons, it's a good idea to re-submit to the major search engines at least every six months or so, or any time you make a major site revision. Sound like a lot of work? Not really, especially if you use an autosubmitter. Some of them can also automate the process of checking to see if you are listed.
Submitting to search engines is an essential first step, but there are lots of other things you can do to promote your site. The name of the game is to get as much traffic as you can, so you want to get as many links pointing to your site as you can. The Web is so large and complex that there's practically no limit to the amount of time you can spend trying to stir up traffic.
Specialty search engines and directories are well worth investigating. There are lots of sites that feature links to sites about a particular topic, such as travel, investing, food, etc. Some are small search engines, which allow users to search for sites, while others are "links pages," which simply have static lists of links that users can browse. These can be very worthwhile if your site happens to fit into a topic that they cover. Don't forget our caveat about all the marginal sites out there. If a page looks amateurishly done, or appears not to have been updated in a long time, it probably gets little or no traffic.
Link exchanges are very valuable for new and/or smaller sites. These outfits let you submit a banner ad to them in return for placing their ad on your site. Every time someone sees the banner on your site, you earn credit towards displays of your banner on other member sites. The largest of these is the Internet LinkExchange, but there is also the Hyperbanner and several others.
A time-honored and effective way to build traffic is to exchange links with related sites. Your competitors probably won't want to put up a link to your site (then again, they may), but your suppliers, customers and other companies that you work with may do so. Content sites that cover topics related to your site, and sites of companies that make related products, are good candidates for reciprocal links. Most folks will expect you to respond in kind by adding a link to their site. If you like, you can put all these links on a special "links page" so they don't clutter up your home page. If you have lots of useful links, your links page may even become a valuable resource in its own right, building even more traffic for your site.
Email newsletters are terrific traffic-builders. An announcement newsletter, which allows you to send email to visitors who sign up for the list, can be used to notify customers and potential customers of new features on your site, special offers, etc. A discussion list, which allows any list members to post messages, can be a valuable resource for members, and can be used to plug your site. For details of how email lists can be used to build site traffic, see the article, Mailing Lists for Web Sites.
Don't confuse mailing lists with spam. A mailing list consists of people who signed up to receive messages, and who can unsubscribe from the list at any time. Spam is mass email sent to people who never asked to receive it. Don't believe the promises of the scamsters who offer to set you up with spam lists. Spamming will cripple your traffic, and quite possibly put your Web site out of business, as all hosting services have strict anti-spam policies, and will cancel the account of a spammer in a heartbeat.
Whether you have your own mailing list or not, participating in appropriate discussion lists and online forums can be a good way to increase awareness of your site, and build traffic. Be careful to use proper netiquette, and obey all the guidelines of any group that you participate in. Most lists won't tolerate blatant advertising, but see nothing wrong in sneaking in a plug for your site here and there, in the course of contributing meaningfully to the discussion.
What about paid advertising? As an employee of an advertising-supported network of Web sites, I hate to bite the hand that feeds me, but in my experience, buying banner advertising is seldom cost-effective for a small business. To get results from banner ads, you need to spend some serious money, and you need to be prepared to refine both the banners and their placement on an ongoing basis. Mailing list ads, however, are generally far cheaper, and often reach much more finely-targeted audiences, than banner ads. If you can find a mailing list or two that target the type of people you're trying to reach, it might be well worthwhile to try a few ads.
Some more tips on things you can do to promote your Web site can be found in my recent WDVL article, You've submitted to all the search engines. Now what?
Promoting your Web site is an endless task. You could sit at your computer for twelve hours a day for weeks, and still not exhaust all the potential ways to stir up traffic. But don't despair. As with all things, there's a point of diminishing returns - submitting your site to the major search engines carefully and thoroughly, and taking a few of the other steps listed above, should be quite enough to get some traffic rolling your way. After that, the most important thing for Internet success is the same as in any business - sell a quality product or service at a competitive price. If you don't do that, then all the promotion and marketing in the world will be a waste of time.
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