The Importance of Being Popular


Anybody who ever went to public high school knows how important it is to be popular, and those of us who were popular remember how great it was. The good-natured ribbing the jocks gave us, the librarians who overlooked our late returns because we worked the slide projector, how the girls mentally undressed us when we wore our band uniforms. Good times, good times.

Well, for many of us it’s equally important for our Web sites to be popular. If you never look at your traffic reports it’s hard to know whether your site is the belle of the ball or a wallflower. (Note: Different sites have different popularity requirements. Some sites are just more needy than others.) The most basic piece of information that people are interested in—and where many people stop looking—is visitors. This is the supposed number of unique sessions over a given amount of time.

Why supposed? Well, without getting too technical, when many people come at once from one Internet Service Provider or ISP—for example AOL—they may appear as just one visitor. Other times a large corporation using a proxy server might request a page just once but show a copy of that page to several people. As far as you know, only one person visited.

These traffic reports will often tell you which pages at your site were requested most frequently. Why is this important? Give the people what they want! Maybe everyone wants to check out your recipe for homemade salsa, but your homemade chutney soda is a dud. You now know that you should post more south-of-the-border treats and that chutney and carbonation don’t mix.

If you want to dig a little deeper, many reports will tell you where people are coming from. This doesn’t mean that you know their names and email addresses (thank God) but which Web site they were at when they decided to click to your site.

If they were at a search engine, you may also be able to find out which search words they used to find your site. This can give you a better idea of what people are searching for when they find a site like yours. (Personally, I get the most traffic for the Winchester Mystery House. Attack of the 50″ Woman is mighty popular, too.) Often you’ll find search terms that you hadn’t thought of when promoting your site and now you can add them. If you’re feeling really industrious you can visit that search engine, enter those search terms, and see which sites are appearing higher than yours. A little more investigative work and you might discover why these sites are coming up higher, and perhaps you can tweak your own site.

Many search engines these days (as opposed to the search engines of yore) are making link popularity a more important variable in their algorithms. What does this mean? I’m not sure, I cribbed it from InfoWeek. Actually, it means that they believe that the more people who link to your site the more relevant the material must be, so your site will come up higher in searches.

Whether or not their belief is true, you should get people to link to your site. The first step is to link to theirs. If you don’t have a links or resources page, consider creating one. Chances are you can’t answer all the questions and problems of the visitors coming to your site. Having offsite resources can support your own message. If you’re afraid of losing visitors, consider having the link open in a new window; or if you’re completely paranoid, keep the new site in a frame set so part of your site is always showing. (This doesn’t always go over well with other site owners whom you may soon be asking for a reciprocal link.)

Once you’ve created this page and posted it to the Web, contact the Webmaster for each site. Let them know that you’ve created a link to their site but if they want it taken down you’ll be happy to comply. Don’t worry, they never want it taken down; who wants to lose potential traffic? Tell them that you feel that your visitors will benefit from the material on their site. Hopefully this is true so you won’t have to lie. Tell them that you think their visitors will also benefit from the content on your site, and could they create a reciprocal link? My experience is that you’ll have great results this way.

Another way to create links to your site is through email. Sure, many of my clients have already realized the benefit of sending out a monthly newsletter embedded with links to their home page and new features at their site. But testimonials carry more weight when you don’t write them yourself. I learned that during the college admissions process. But how can you get people to email their friends about your site? Well, you could forge their name to an email, but let’s take the high road.

The easier you make it for your visitors to tell their friends about your site the more likely they are to do so. Our site, the Center for Development & Learning’s site, and Dr. Larry Kutner’s site all employ an “Email This Article to a Friend” form. It allows people to quickly email the contents of an article and a personal message to a friend or colleague. When it arrives, it also comes with a message about your site and a link back to it.

A stripped-down version of this is a simple “Recommend This Site” form. It can be placed on your contact page or anywhere else on your site. Some people are just born helpers. My grandfather cuts out every article from the Ft. Lauderdale Ledger that even remotely mentions the Internet and mails it to me. Make it easy for these people by adding this simple form.

With these few Pygmalion-like steps, your site can be a Homecoming King or Queen, too. Or at least it won’t get stuffed into its own gym locker.

–Rich Brooks
President, flyte new media