Whether you’re an expert on model railways or Pez sweet dispensers, or you're a budding entrepreneur, programs such as Apple’s iWeb and Adobe’s Dreamweaver, as well as online tools such as Blogger and WordPress, make it easy to create websites that communicate your passion. Of course, getting those websites noticed is another matter entirely. Luckily, there are a few free and easy ways to lead the masses to your front door.
Suck up to search engines
Search engines are the most powerful way to draw an audience. If your site pops up in Google’s or Yahoo’s search results, that can mean thousands of new visitors. But how do you raise your site’s search-engine profile? Here are a few tricks:
Use Plain Text
Don’t bury your content in Flash movies, graphics, podcasts, or PDF files. While some search engines can read these types of files, they prefer regular text coded in regular HTML.
Make sure to create HTML versions of any PDF files on your site. If you’re offering podcasts, it’s important to include show notes - web pages that summarise the content and emphasise the main topics of each episode. And if you must put text inside a graphic, supply a text description with the image’s alt attribute. In Dreamweaver, select the graphic and type a short description in the Property Inspector’s Alt box. Unfortunately, iWeb doesn’t let you add alt text to your images.
Think about words that potential visitors to your site might enter into a search engine. For example, possible search terms for your Pez site might include Pez history, collectible candy dispenser, and Star Wars Pez. For help identifying keywords, check out the Keyword Selector Tool site. Simply enter a subject into the text box, and the site will return a list of related search terms.
Once you identify your keywords, it’s important to actually use them in the text of your Web pages. If you write page after page about the history of Pez dispensers but never actually use the words Pez history, your site won’t make the results page when someone searches for that term. Try to use keywords in the first few paragraphs of your text - search engines give more weight to words that appear near the top of a page than to those at the bottom.
Use Headers and Titles
Search engines assign greater value to words located in titles and headlines than to body text. So try to incorporate the most relevant keywords in your pages’ titles and headings, especially the text inside the 1> tags. If you use Dreamweaver, type your headline text, and then select the headline type (Heading 1, Heading 2, and so on) from the Property Inspector. Unfortunately, iWeb doesn’t give you any control over the HTML it creates.
As for titles, make sure to give each page on your site a unique, specific title that identifies the main topic; avoid using your site or company name for each page. If you’re using Dreamweaver, always change the default title (Untitled Document) when you create a new page, by typing a name in the title box at the top of the document window. iWeb users can use the Page Name box in the Inspector window’s Page pane to set a page’s title.
Tip - use descriptive titles in Blogger
If you’re trying to draw attention to a site you’ve created on Blogger or another blogging service, keep in mind that most of these sites wrap the title of each post in a headline tag. So make sure your titles for each entry are descriptive and include keywords.
A website will rank higher in a search engine’s results if other sites link to it. But not all links are created equal. Sites devoted to related topics make for more valuable links and, therefore, higher search rankings. To take advantage of this, approach the owners of pages similar to yours and suggest a reciprocal linking arrangement. To keep track of which sites are linking to yours, visit Who Links to Me . Using search data from the likes of Google, Yahoo, and MSN, Who Links to Me provides information on how many sites — and which ones — link to yours.
Links from other sites are important for search-engine rankings, and they provide more ways for people to find your site. Participate in forums that discuss topics related to your site’s focus, and remember to include your web address in your forum signature or your user profile page. Though these links probably won’t help you out with search engines, they may result in increased traffic as you become better known within a community. But don’t become a shill. You’ll likely do better if you post relevant information on the forum, not just “Visit my cool site” posts.
Beyond search engines
Of course, search engines aren’t the only game in town. There are other ways to draw users to your site.
Tap into social sites
A good way to get your site noticed is to get it onto one of the popular social bookmark sites such as Digg or del.icio.us. Digg highlights web pages that are submitted and voted on by users. The more votes a story gets, the higher it moves on Digg’s Popular Stories pages.
The del.icio.us site lets users create web-based bookmarks for their favorite links and then tag those bookmarks with keywords. Users can discover one another’s bookmarks by searching for keywords; if many people bookmark the same page, it gets promoted to a Most Popular list.
To get your web page listed on Digg or del.icio.us, provide a button that lets visitors easily add your page to those services (see below - and feel free to Digg :-). Both sites provide the necessary HTML code.
Popularize your podcast
Podcasters have additional avenues for self-promotion. First, of course, there’s the iTunes Store. To get listed in iTunes, you’ll have to jump through a few technological and bureaucratic hoops, such as filling out an application and creating an RSS feed (a special file you place on your web server along with the podcast). Not all podcasts are accepted, but you can give it a shot.
iTunes isn’t your only alternative. You can also try a podcast directory, such as the popular Podcast Alley. To get listed there, simply click on the Add Your Podcast link in the left column of the site’s home page. Other directories to consider include Podcast.net and Yahoo’s podcast directory.
Beware of offers that guarantee top placement with search engines. There’s no shortcut to good placement, and some dubious tactics employed by disreputable companies can get your site banned from a search engine. For example, in early 2006, Google temporarily banned the German BMW site because it sent different web content to the Google search bots than it was providing to regular site visitors.
Some infamous scams include filling a page with nonsensical keyword-rich text, hiding keyword-rich text by making it the same colour as a page’s background, and participating in link farms - websites that exist merely to increase the number of incoming links to your site.
Draw an audience
The best way to attract visitors to your site is to create strong content that’s constantly updated. Here are a few rules that can help you accomplish that:
1. Stick to what you know Whether you want to blog about local politics or chronicle the progress of your home remodeling projects, make sure you’re passionate about the topic of your website. Your enthusiasm will help draw readers who share your passion. But don’t be too self-involved. Think about what your readers want from your site. While most people probably don’t care what your favourite books are, they may be interested in reading book reviews.
2. Go deeper. Look for new and interesting ways to present content. For instance, if you’re selling handmade imported rugs, go beyond the basic sales pitch by providing stories about the places the rugs are made or the people who make them.
3. Update frequently. Once you’ve attracted users to your site, keep them coming back by making sure that your content is fresh and up-to-date.
[David Sawyer McFarland is the author of Dreamweaver 8.0: The Missing Manual (O’Reilly, 2005) and CSS: The Missing Manual (O’Reilly, 2006). This article first appeared on Macworld.com]