How Does Anyone Ever Find Anything on the Web?In order to increase website traffic, it is important to understand how anyone ever finds anything relevant to what they want to know on a network of 35,964,454 registered domains (http://www.domainstats.com/, 12 July 2001) and many times that number of web pages.
People find websites pertinent to their interests via a number of means, which can be divided into two categories: off-line and on-line. Off-line sources are those that are available when the user is not actually at his or her computer. On-line sources are those that are present only during the time a computer is being used.
"Off-line" sources of traffic include:
Traditional advertising.Rather than leaving it up to a potential customer to find its site through other means, an organization may advertise its URL (universal resource locator, or web address) via traditional marekting media such as television, radio, or print. The goal is to make the website a place that potential customers will be motivated to visit purposefully. This type of "destination site" usually provides some sort of product or service that the user can purchase or apply for at the time of the visit.
Internet yellow pages.For many people, these books containing lists of website addresses organized by subject area were the original search engines. These are still published, but their usefulness is limited since they are not quickly updateable.
Guesswork.It is fairly easy to guess the website address of a known entity if it has selected a good domain name. Not surprisingly, this is the source of a great deal of site traffic for nationally known companies and institutions, and a serious problem for companies that are unable to purchase the most obvious domain name for their company. (For many years, Radio Shack was unable to purchase the domain name www.radioshack.com because it has been purchased earlier by a man who was finally sold it to them - probably for a far amount of money.)
Word of mouth.People talk to other people about good websites. If there is something exceptional on a website, people are likely to pass the URL on to their friends and family.
"On-line" sources of website traffic include:
Various types of search engines.These can be broken down into three categories: human-edited directories, crawler-based search engines, and hybrid search engines.
Human-edited directories, such as dmoz.org, compile website listings, broken down into topic categories, from submissions made to them and by editor searches of the web. Submitted listings are usually edited before being posted, and those listings must be manually updated by submission from the website owner if the website changes.
Crawler-based search engines, such as www.google.com, send "robots" or "spiders" to web servers and index copies of web pages, which are matched to keywords in the web pages when a search is performed.
Hybrid search engines use both human-edited and crawler-based components, usually favoring one over the other. The Yahoo! search engine is an example of this type.
Internet keywords.This tool is relatively new. A business registers a keyword with a domain registrar, just as it would register a domain name. When a user types a registered keyword into the address bar of Internet Explorer, he or she is taken directly to the site that registered the keyword.
Although they do not yet work with every browser, keywords are likely to become more popular as people adopt new browsers that support them. They are also relatively inexpensive. On 12 July 2001, the cost of registering a keyword for one year was $49.00 at www.easyspace.com.
Web portals.Web portals were developed to provide web surfers with a "jumping off" spot for Internet exploration. These sites, Yahoo! being one of the best known, provide both search utilities and listings for paid advertisers. Campus Pipeline is an example of a web portal for a specific community.
On-line advertising.On-line advertising can include paid link placement on portal sites, pop-up windows, and banner ads.
Links from other sites.Link exchanges and link postings are inexpensive and effective ways of increasing site visibility. In addition, having multiple links to your site from other pages increases the likelihood that your site name will be picked up by web crawlers. Having your site reviewed by another site or a traditional media outlet is another, related, way to increase traffic.
Links from e-mail newsletters.Many organizations send regular newsletters to which users subscribe, and these letters may include links to other sites. Maintaining working relationships with such organizations may introduce new users to your site address.
Word of 'net.This is the on-line equivalent to word of mouth. E-mail forwarding and newsgroup posting of links help guide people to a site.
Links from unsolicited e-mail (spam).Lists of e-mail addresses may be bought and e-mail sent to those addresses, much as with "junk" postal mail. This is not something with which a reputable organization should be involved.
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Website Traffic StrategyWebsite traffic management is the on-going effort that springs from the overall marketing strategy developed according to the unique needs of the business involved. Depending on what product or service the business provides, and whether the business is a physical or web-based entity, this will vary.
To deal specifically with website management, each of the sources of traffic should be examined and evaluated as to its suitability for use by a particular business enterprise.
Off-line sources of traffic:
Traditional advertising.Any traditional advertising sources that a business already uses should incorporate the business's web address and emphasize any benefits (on-line purchasing, information, application facilities) that are available. The web address should be prominently displayed on all printed materials, i.e., brochures, letterhead, and business cards that the company distributes.
Internet Yellow Pages.Listing in an Internet Yellow Pages directory is not likely to be an important source of web traffic unless there is already a directory published for that particular type of business. The web address should, however, be listed with the institution's information in any directory in which that institution is already listed.
Guesswork.Whenever possible, a business should chose a domain name would be easy to guess by people who might have heard of the business through other means. At the very least, this will help people who have heard the web address but failed to right it down have a good chance at figuring it out
In some cases, it is helpful to register a name under several different domains, i.e., .edu and .org, or .com and .net. This prevents other businesses from using that name, and may make it easier for people to find the site.
On-line sources of traffic:
Various types of search engines.This is such an important issue for businesses who hope to attract national and international customers that it is dealt with in a separate section. (See Search Engine Placement Strategy.) According to www.searchenginewatch.com (12 July 2001), "Many websites appear poorly in search engine rankings or may not be listed at all because they fail to consider how search engines work." A general rule, however, is that a site should be listed in as many search engines as possible, with the use of keywords in titles, descriptions, and page content designed to increase the ranking of those listings in relevant searches.
There is no charge for submitting a site listing to most search engines, however some, such as www.goto.com charge a one-time fee for listings and additional fees for click-throughs. It is up to the individual business to decide if these fees will provide sufficient benefit to be justifiable. In most cases, they do not.
In addition to fee-based search engines, there are fee-based site submission services. The fees for these vary by the number of URLs submitted, the number of search engines to which the URLs are submitted, and the frequency of resubmissions. Some will even generate META-tags for your web pages and help you optimize the use of keywords in titles and descriptions. Before trying paid services, I would suggest trying some of the free ones, like www.addme.com, which provide many of the same services without charge.
Internet keywords.Internet keywords are relatively new. They are single words, registered with a domain registrar, which can be used to replace long web addresses when typed into the address bar of a web browser. Even though many browsers do not yet support the use of keywords, they are relatively inexpensive to register, and if there is a word with which your organization wants to be especially associated, this is the way to do it. America Online has been using keywords, as opposed to web addresses, within its information services site for many years.
Web portals.Paid advertising on a web portal site may be effective in directing traffic to a site, but it is expensive. Whether it is worth the cost or not depends on the type of customer that is most likely to use that portal, and whether or not that customer is a good fit for your business. In cases where there are interest- or age-specific portal sites available, this possibility should be investigated.
Web portals often offer personalized pages, i.e., "My Yahoo! or "My Netscape." It is worth considering whether potential clients might like to have personalized pages for your site, if that is an option that your business would be willing to support technologically.
On-line advertising.On-line advertising provides revenue for many sites that provide services to on-line visitors without charge. This advertising is often in the form of pop-ups windows or banner ads at the top of a page. Again, the benefit of this type of advertising depends on the nature of the business and the target audience.
Links from other sites.Exchanging links with other sites, or having a link to your business site posted on another site, is an easy and inexpensive way to increase website traffic. Many such links are available simply by requesting them. It is worth the time to do some research to see if there are sites relevant to your business that provide this sort of posting.
In addition, any professional organizations with which employees might be affiliated often provide directory listings for their members that include website addresses. Encourage employees to include the business website URL - or a link to their web page on the business site - in any listings that they provide for such organizations
Links from e-mail newsletters.Many sites send out regular e-mail newsletters to subscribers who have signed up for that service on their website. This type of newsletter often includes links to sites that might be of interest to the newsletter readers. If this type of newsletter exists for your business area, or for professional organizations related to your business, it is worth it to try to get a link to your site included.
A business might also consider offering a topic-oriented newsletter to which visitors to its site can subscribe to generate interest in people returning to its website, and to send its subscribers links (on or off the business site) that will strengthen their relationship with the business.
Word of 'net.One additional advantage to e-mail newsletters is that they may be forwarded by the recipient to other people. Many people communicate on the Internet via e-mail, forwarded e-mails, newsgroups, and chat rooms. This can work to the advantage, or disadvantage, of a business, depending on the reputation that the business develops. People are more likely to send "hate e-mails" about a company with which they have a problem than they are to send e-mails of glowing recommendation to their friends, so it is even more important than ever that a business strive for both customer and employee satisfaction.
Links from unsolicited e-mail (spam).This option is left for last, because no reputable business wants to be associated with electronic junk mail. Any e-mail sent to a customer or potential customer should be at that person's request (i.e., subscriptions to newsletters or follow-up inquiries), and they recipient should have a clear and easy way of requesting that no additional information be sent.
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Issues that Influence Search Engine Results
Why search engines are important.According to www.submitit.com (12 July 2001), "Over 85% of web surfers use search engines to find what they need." While Bud Smith, formerly of www.altavista.com disputes this claim (netbusiness.netscape.com, 12 July 2001) in the case of small businesses with local customer bases, it is applicable to organizations that wish to attract customers nationally, or even internationally.
In order to increase traffic to a website through the use of search engine listings, four issues need to be considered: getting listed, having the listing come up as a search result, increasing the ranking of the site in the search results, and increasing the probability of "click-through" - the act of someone actually clicking on the listing and visiting the site.
Listings.When a web surfer uses a search engine, he or she types in one or more keywords. The results appear as category matches and/or website matches, depending on the search engine used. Whether the search engine used is human-edited or crawler-based, however, it only reports those websites or pages that are in its database. Therefore, the first step to achieving search engine results is to make sure that the site - and as many of the individual pages on it as possible - are listed. Keep in mind, too, that different people use different search engines, so the more search engines a site is listed with, the more likely it is to be found.
Keywords.Because searches are done by keywords, sites indexed by a search engine, whether it is human-edited or crawler-based, are evaluated as possible results by the keywords with which the search engine associates them. The two primary types of search engines determine keywords differently, so an effective web marketing strategy must carefully identify good keywords and make them available to both types of search engines.
Relevancy.A search can produce thousands of results, so search engines use ranking algorithms, usually based on the location and frequency of keywords, in an attempt to list the sites that are most likely to be relevant to the search first. It is to the website owner's advantage to have its website appear high in the list of search results, as very few people will look at more than the first 10 or 20 listings that result from their searches.
Page descriptions.A high ranking in the search results is not enough. Most search engines provide the title of the site and a description of it along with the link. If the description does not catch the searcher's interest, he or she is likely to go to the next link. This is important not only for the index, or main, page of the site, but for every page.
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Search Engine Placement Strategy
Measure the level and source of current website traffic.No one wants to put time, effort, or money into a project without being able to measure the success of its outcome. If there is a website in place, then the web server is already likely to be collecting raw data about site traffic. This data should be analyzed to determine usage patterns, which can then be compared with usage patterns after the web marketing strategy has been implemented.
Also, keep in mind that the amount of traffic that a website can handle is limited by its server performance and connection bandwidth. If either is already near its limit, it would be imprudent to try to increase traffic without increasing the server's capacity and/or bandwidth first.
Identify the purpose of the site and its target audience(s).Because there are two primary types of search engines, which vary in how they acquire their listings, produce search results, rank sites according to relevancy, and acquire their site descriptions, it is important to have a web marketing strategy that starts with a general overview of the website and its target audience. If the site has particular sections that would appeal to different audiences, these should be clearly defined.
Identify the interests of each target audience.In preparation for the next step, and to broaden the outreach of the marketing effort, it is helpful to identify not only what your site has to offer your target audience, but also what else people of that age/gender/interest area/income bracket are interested in. Pages of your site listed under relevant categories specific to those interests, even if slightly peripheral to the main purpose of your site, help to broaden the outreach effort and attract people who might not otherwise be interested.
Identify keywords and phrases.This is an extremely important step because it affects the construction of the web pages on that site. Relevancy, and therefore ranking, in search engines is determined by the location of keywords in the HTML document (in the heading tags, as well as in the body of the text) and the frequency of use of those keywords in relation to each other. In addition to individual words, key phrases that are likely to be searched on will result in higher rankings than individual words. If there is a site search engine in place on the site, the logs from that search engine can be used to identify commonly used search phrases by people who visit the site already.
Make a catalog of all existing web pages on the site.Websites, particularly in large organizations, can grow very fast. In order to maximize listing efforts, it is important that each page be optimized. The most efficient way to do this is to create documentation which lists each page's file name, META tags, date of last revision, and specifies to what edited-based search engines it has been submitted and when those submissions were last updated.
Create a title and description for each web page.These will be included in both the web page header and used for any human-edited web page submissions. Both should include as many keywords or phrases as possible, while still remaining of reasonable length. The title should be no longer than will comfortably fit in the title bar of a browser (where it will appear), and the description should be no longer than 200 characters, including spaces and punctuation. Keep in mind in the case of human-edited directories that editors will alter any listing that is too long or is poorly written, but that they would rather use what you submit, so it's worth the time to do a good job on this.
If a full optimization is desired, consider placing keywords densely in the top web page headings, the top part of the body text and in ALT tags (text labels for images). Web crawlers use the frequency and location of keywords in these areas to determine relevance, as well.
Update catalog listings of current and new web pages as they are optimized and loaded.This must be an on-going effort in order to support and maintain consistent effort and accountability for web page optimization.
Make manual submissions and/or updates to human-edited directories.This step does not have to wait until each page is fully optimized, because human-edited directories do not use information from the meta-tags on a site to catalog it. Editors do view a site before including it in a category, however, so at the very least the title and description should be correct in the HTML code before it is submitted.
Despite the fact that crawler-based search engines are becoming more popular, human-edited directories are still very important. For example, the Open Directory Project (dmoz.org) maintains "the largest human-edited directory on the web," and it provides directory listings for: www.alltheweb.com, www.altavista.com, www.deja.com, www.google.com, www.hotbot.com, www.infoseek.com, www.lycos.com, www.northernlight.com, and www.yahoo.com (12 July 2001).
Re-evaluate website traffic patterns.This should be done regularly, but initially no sooner than six weeks after all optimized web pages are loaded. The World Wide Web is fast, but web crawlers and directory editors are not. It is simply not realistic to expect instant results. However, during this time, some of the avenues available for advertising websites - such as getting listed on other sites or making contacts with newsletter publishers - can be developed.
Continue the process.Because neither business websites nor search engine listings are static, search engine placement strategy must be an on-going part of website traffic management. In addition to maintaining and updating optimized web pages, maintaining the web page catalog, and updating human-edited directory listings as needed, new developments in search engine technology and trends in customer web usage should be followed. These should then be compared to website traffic patterns, which should be evaluated periodically in light of the support they provide to marketing and the success of the business as a whole.
The success of a business that relies significantly on attracting interest or sales via website traffic is dependent on the degree to which search engine placement strategy and traffic management are maintained as priorities over the long term.
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Is Traffic All You Need?While increasing traffic to a website is important, it is an effective business practice only to the extent that the increased traffic brings increased revenue to the site's owner. This may be direct - through increased sales or donations made through the website - or indirect - through increased interest in the owner's services.
In either case, if increased traffic does not produce the desired revenue increase, then the website's engineering and content should be evaluated.
Website engineering issues include:
Load time.A web page - particularly one tailored to the needs of home users - should take no longer than 45 seconds (ideally closer to 30 seconds) to load completely on a 28.8 bps modem. The number and size of the graphics and special effects in the web page, as well as the size of the web page file, affect load speed.
Monitor size and resolution.The appearance of web pages in browser windows is further affected by different monitor sizes, resolutions, and color settings. Beyond the palette of the 211 web-safe colors, color values may not be predictable, and some shades, such as yellow, gold, orange, and light green can look positively bilious on older monitors.
Navigation.Sites should clearly organized, with consistently located menu bars and navigation prompts on each page. This is particularly important since crawler-based search engines can refer a searcher to any page in a site.
Contrast.Websites should have clearly contrasting background and text colors. Dark text on light background is best for most applications. Different colors in similar tones may blend together and be difficult to read on some monitors.
Printability.Most browsers do not, by default print backgrounds or background colors, and some do not print images. Be sure that anything you would want users to be able to print is in dark text.
General appearance.The website should reflect the image and identity that the organization wants to convey. The use of colors is particularly effective. Interesting fonts may not be effective, because unless they are done in graphic images, they will not appear in the web page on the user's computer unless the user has those fonts loaded on his or her machine.
Links.All links should be checked to make sure they work properly. Dead links from pages that were once on the site but have since been removed or renamed will quickly cause visitors to look elsewhere. Also keep this in mind when re-organizing a site, since it is likely to be at least a month before a spider visits and re-indexes the site, and pages that are removed will still appear in crawler-based directories for that length of time. Links from human-edited directories will not change at all unless updated manually.
Website content issues include:
Relevance.Is the content presented aimed at the "real" target audience, or at the perceived target audience? For example, websites for children's toys and games are aimed at children, even though the desired effect of those sites is the increased purchase of consumer items by parents. Even though the parents are the ones actually making the purchases, it is understood that the children have a great deal of influence over those purchases.
Interest.For the most part, people who are visiting a site for the first time will scan only the top part of the first page they see before deciding, usually within second, whether they will stay on the site or continue their search. For this reason, eye-catching content, directly relevant to the site purpose and possible searches, should be near the top of each page.
Proofread.There is no place on a business website for pages with grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors!
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ConclusionAn effective business website requires a long-term commitment: in technical support, in content management and updating, and in traffic management.
Once that commitment is made, a systematic approach, which includes performance metrics, statistical evaluation, and documentation increases the chance of long-term success.
The technological and human resources needed to maintain a website are equally important, and are approached different ways by different businesses, depending on the individual business's needs and resources.
Some businesses opt for performing all of these functions "in-house," with full and/or part-time employees. Others outsource these functions, and still others combine the two approaches.
In any case, the World Wide Web has changed how people do business, and an effective website can increase revenues for businesses - particularly those trying to reach potential customers on a national or international basis.
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