Published on 2001-07-14 by John Collins. Please follow me on Twitter for more:
If you are planning on launching a web site anytime soon, simply putting the site on the Internet and hoping for an immediate flood of traffic is just not realistic. While in danger of stating the obvious, the Internet is huge, and in order to reach the audience you have in mind for your site, you have to decide how you are going to inform that audience of your presence.
If you are the owner of a site being designed by a web designer or firm, ask them about how they intend to promote your site. Simply putting it up and leaving it to it's own devices is just not good enough. For the extra expense involved, a coordinated promotion strategy is worth the effort. After all, there is no point in having a brilliant site if nobody can find it. Hopefully the following hints will prove equally useful to the businessperson and web developer alike.
The anatomy of any HTML page is similar to that of your own body, it contains a 'head' and a 'body'. The body contains all of the main content of the page, graphics, text etc. The head contains a page title and what are called meta-tags, which contain a page description (in plain English) and keywords, which contain a list of words which best describe the subject of the site. These keywords contain anything you like, and a list of which should be supplied to your web designer.
When a web user visits a search engine site such as Yahoo.com, Lycos.com, Google.com or numerous others, he/she types into the page what they are looking for. This is matched to the keywords in the head of your page, and if they match the search your site will be displayed in the search results. The search engine will show the title of your page along with the description of the page, both of which are again taken from the head section. If a web designer neglects to include this information, the amount of traffic gained through search engines queries will be nominal.
Manual submission of your site to at least twenty of the top search engines is advised. They are not without their flaws, however. Submission can be a long and expensive process, on average each site takes two-three weeks to process your submission, and even then traffic is not guaranteed. A visitor may type in a set of keywords accurately matching that of your site, but there may be fifty sites before yours in the list with similar results!
Generally, it is best to think of search engine submissions as a complimentary action in a more vigorous promotion campaign, and never as the only means of generating visitors to your site.
Most web sites contain a 'links' page, such as the one to be found on this site. Site managers can embark on a link exchange campaign with other sites in the same field, for example if your site is based on photography, you could e-mail other photography sites to see if they are interested in exchanging links to each others sites. Not all sites would be willing to do this; some may see you as a competitor if you supply the same good or service.
The main benefit of a link exchange program is that it attracts the right kind of visitor to your site, for example a person coming from another photography site already has a healthy interest in your photography content. A further benefit is that it is free, it only requires time to find other sites willing to link up.
Submitting your site to an online directory is similar to link exchange, but generally the directory site will not require you to place a link on your site in return (although it is appreciated if you do!). The directories survive on revenue generated through advertising, and aim to generate as much relevant traffic through their site to attract advertisers to place ads with them. I say relevant because each directory tends to facilitate a certain field or subject matter.
To continue with the photography example, suppose you found an online directory on which to place your photography site. Any hits gained through this site would be guaranteed to be the right kind of visitor for you, i.e. people interested in photography. If they were not, why would they be looking through a directory related to photography This is the main strength of online directories versus search engines, which tend to be too broad and general. Depending on your field, you should be able to find some directories on the Net to cater for your needs.
Like them or loath them, an attractive banner ad placed on the right kind of site can bring in many visitors to your site. Ads may be still images, or animated in the 'gif' file format. File size for these gifs should be kept small to facilitate speedy download times. Care should also be given to the nature of the animation, it's tastefulness and it's cohesion with the style of the site it is advertising.
The cost of banner ad placement varies hugely from site to site. As a general rule, if a site gains a huge amount of visitors per month then the cost of advertising on this site will be high. The opposite is true, while the click through rate for a banner ad is said to be high if it reaches 3%. Furthermore, the cost of the actual design of the ad itself needs to be taken into account when deciding on this course of action.
Frequent updates to the content of your web site is an important factor in maintaining the 'stickiness' of your site, i.e. if a person visits your site once, you want the same person to come back again and again in the future. In order to promote this desire in your visitors, the best way to entice them is on the promise of fresh new content being added to you site on a regular basis.
This may not be easily achieved depending upon the nature of your site, and in such a circumstance you might want to renew the visual presentation of the site on a yearly basis. This will at least keep your site looking new and up to date, while embracing the latest web technologies to display your content in an interesting way.
For sites with frequent updates like this one, a newsletter may be prepared once a month to highlight these new innovations. Users are invited to submit their e-mail address to receive the newsletter and therefore are giving their full consent to receive it. Furthermore, a 'what's new' section should be added to your site to highlight recent additions.
As anybody knows who has his or her inbox filled with unsolicited junk mail on a daily basis, nobody reads it. Not clear enough Spam mail does not work! Please don't let anybody talk you into doing it, it actually can be bad for your site's image as people get tired of seeing your name in their inbox five times a day. I rest my case.
'Viral Mail' requires more explanation. Let us assume that your site contains animated Flash content, some of which might be humorous in content (much of it is these days). Let us suppose that your Flash designer compiles a small, easily distributed Flash animation that is based on the theme of your site. This is e-mailed out to a group of people, who find it funny and pass it on to friends, and before you know it this humble piece of entertainment has reached a very large audience.
If you place your site logo or address in this animation, you can see where the practice of 'Viral Mail' is heading: more site traffic. This method has been used for a number of years, and relies heavily on word of mouth. While essentially a marketing ploy, it really does no harm to anyone (unlike spam!) so I neither condemn nor condone this method. Use it at your own risk.
Site statistics are a very large, complicated beast, which I have covered in greater detail in the article entitled: "Introduction to Site Statistics", found elsewhere on this site. For the purposes of promoting your site, the following statistics are the most important:
1. Think of your master hit counter as the main place where you count the number of hits to your site. This may be an intro page, or your home page, and should be the page that is frequented the most by your visitors. It should count 'unique' (first time) hits and page views (which include the same person hitting the refresh button).
2. It is important to be aware of the most popular sections on your web site, especially if you wish to maintain the stickiness of your site. If you put up a new section, for example, people will 'vote with their feet' by visiting or not visiting that section. Therefore, a hit counter should be place on every page of your site.
3. As discussed above with link exchange, directories, search engines and banner ads, site stats should show where your visitors clicked to get to your site. If you placed an expensive banner ad for example, you will want to know exactly how many hits you have gained from it.
4. Site stats should also show the country of origin of you visitors. This is especially important if you only want to operate you business within a particular country.
As stated above, this is a complicated area and warrants further study on your behalf.
Even if you follow all of the advice obtained within this article, you still may not gain the amount of site traffic you require to remain afloat. I don't mean to be gloomy, I just need to point out that there are no guarantees. Employment of a marketing specialist in e-commerce, if your budget stretches that far, may be the most worthwhile investment of all. Combined with a solid good or service, an attractive web site and effective promotion strategy, your chances of success are increased manifold.
Updated 2020 : note that the above post is out-of-date, given this post was originally published in 2001, but is left here for archival purposes.