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Getting Started on the web

General ideas

For the last decade or so, getting on the web means building a web site. My furniture pictures on Facebook have had many nice comments from friends, but never a sale. A listing on Etsy or CustomMade.com only puts you up against direct competitors, who can always build something cheap that looks similar to yours. So you build a web site (or get a friend to build one for you), and wait for the orders to come rolling in. And wait. And wait.

My first web site was like that. "I am here, I am a nice guy, I will build whatever you want. Lets talk. My friends already knew where I was, what I do, and how to contact me. Grandmothers love sites like that - seeing your success (you are on the web, so you must be famous). The number of visitors was measured in dozens. The number of sales was zero. I call these one page web sites that everyone starts with "grandma sites."

Think about what people might be looking for (via Google). If you build bookcases, make a web page on bookcases - not only what you build, but other information about bookcases, so people come to learn as well as to buy. Google will find this page on bookcases, and people will find you. (How to make your bookcase page better than everyone else's, so you are at the beginning of the Google list, is another whole topic.) You now have a place people searching for bookcases can land - called the landing page. Neat, huh? If you also sell coffee tables, have a landing page for coffee tables. A landing page for each of your products that someone might search for. When I rebuilt my web site with many landing pages rather than just a grandma's page, the traffic quickly rose to 8,000 to 12,000 visitors per month. For 10 years practically all my business started on the web site (or repeat customers or referrals.)

Be sure anyone landing on your site gets interesting info in less than 2 seconds, preferably less than 1 second. No animation, video, audio, "enter here" or other gimmicks. Google probably found several million options, so I quickly cancel any site that starts a video (or audio), and go to the next because

  1. I may be looking at the site at work, and sound can announce my goofing off
  2. I may be looking at the site late at night, and sound can wake up the kids
  3. I primarily use an old computer, that slows down and finally has to be rebooted after 5-15 minutes total video
  4. An amazing number of people are still on dial up lines, which are SLOW
  5. I was searching for a product, not a story about why you are the best person with the best shop and the best service. Get with the product.

I decided to publish prices (I could reproduce something exactly like this for $xxx) on my web site even though everything is custom - to keep people who are looking for a $20 coffee table from bothering me, and to reassure customers that my coffee tables are not $10,000 museum pieces. When I first started, I wanted to talk to everyone, but soon I realized that 90% of the contacts were wasted effort.

Web experts say to sell your product on the landing page, but I don't have a product that someone can order directly - I have a service. Therefore each page has links to other pages, and practically every customer has told me, I found a coffee table (or whatever I was looking for) and then browsed your web site, [which convinced me that] you do good work.

If you have a web design company, you should probably fire them. The ones that are really good start web based companies, and as soon as they are profitable sell them for millions - they make more than you or I ever will. The many poor ones often charge a fortune to snow you with buzz words. Hire a high school kid to build a simple (fast) site in HTML (the native language, fast), and be sure he/she doesn't add cute features like video.

More specifics

Many people start by looking for tools (software) that will generate fancy design, with pretty colors, and a logo. A much better first step is figuring what you are going to put on the web site, and how you are going to organize it. You have to answer a fundamental question before you get started - what are your potential customers on the web going to be looking for? If you are already famous, or have a well known business, they may search for you or your web SITE to learn about you. But if you are like me, most people are going to search for my products or services - an entertainment center, coffee table, or an antique restored or repaired, and are not going to be searching for me.

I laugh at the advertisements that promise to build you a colorful, attractive web site in no time. They work, but unless you are famous, nobody will see your site other than your grandmother. Why not? Because the pretty design doesn't inspire search engines to list you - only very specific content that someone is searching for. And many web sites magically generated by fancy tools perform very slowly. If you are already famous, so somebody is searching for your information such as your address, phone number, or hours of operation, this type of web site will work fine.

In practice most people are looking for a product or service. And search engines refer people to specific pages, not sites. Therefore you need to have an informative page about each specific product and service, that can be found by the search engines, your landing pages. These product pages can, in turn, link to your home page for information about who you are and how you do business, but you must start with the products the customers are searching for. Unless your web pages are really ugly, people will come and read if you quickly provide useful information. The bad news? You must provide a separate web page for each product and service, with lots of useful information about that product or service, to be "found" by the search engines.

I am amazed how many people have said "I want to build a web site." Okay, "What is going to be on your web site, and how will you make the content so interesting that people will want to see it - that they will search for it (Google or whatever)?" "What do you want to say?" I have even offered to help people build their first web site as soon as they had the text and pictures organized. Only one person came for my help, but he didn't have the content - only ideas about how the site should look. If you don't know what you want to say, and have pictures to go with it, why do you want a web site? Or maybe you want to spend hundreds (or thousands) of dollars for someone to build something, then rebuild it, then rebuild it again, maybe someday (like the million monkeys at the typewriters) coming up with the compelling story.

I have also met several people who say "I already have a web site, but nobody comes to see it, and Google doesn't find it," as noted above. "What's on your web site that people are looking for?" "I provide a service." Not what do you do (who will ask Google to find "somebody who provides a service?"), but what pages are on your web site that people would search for? They continue to tell me a story, not give me specific topics (separate web pages) that someone would go looking for.

In my own case, I finally rebuilt my web site, with about 50 separate pages, each focused on a single product, to make it attractive for the search engines. Yes, the overall site tells a story, but the search engines never direct people to my site, just to specific pages in the site. My first web-based sale was a coffee table, to a customer 50 miles away. He had searched for "cherry coffee table central Texas." My web site had a page on coffee tables. It mentioned that I could build a coffee table out of cherry among other woods. It said I served Austin and the Central Texas area. My page matched his search close enough that it was near the beginning of the list. Two lessons: First it found the page on coffee tables, not end tables, dining room tables, or any other kind of table. The search was very specific. Second, it found Central Texas. If I want to serve Austin, I need to mention it on every page. If I want to serve more than just Austin, I need to list the other areas ON EVERY PAGE. It can be small print at the bottom of each page, but it must be there! I have gone back and added "Austin," "Central Texas," and other locations to most of my web pages.

SEL - the Search Engine Landing page

The internet experts talk about the "Landing Page" or the SEL page. In the coffee table example, above, the Search Engine directed the user to the Coffee Table page - that is the Search Engine Landing page, not to my home page. That page must be attractive, and quickly start answering questions... yes, you can have a custom coffee table built, this is not a display in a museum. Personally I think you should suggest a price... this isn't the $20 used table shop, nor is it a site selling $10,000 antiques. If you want a good quality but affordable table, keep reading. If you wanted a $20 table this isn't it. Experts say you only have a few seconds to catch the user... if they don't see something interesting in the first few seconds, they will go to the next page suggested by the search. Don't start with pretty animations or music... get directly to the point.

Once I have your attention on the landing page of my web site, then I give you a few options... If you are sold, how do you proceed? Every page can link back to the home page where you can learn about who you are dealing with and how I do business. But more likely, you want to get confidence that I do good work. So every page has a "previous" and "next" button to help you walk through a variety of my work. Practically everyone who comes to me through the web site says "I looked through your web site and you do wonderful work. Can you make..." So every landing page has to

  1. Keep the visitor's attention, usually by quickly and directly showing that you have the answer they were searching for
  2. Give them confidence that you are the one that they want to deal with
    1. That your prices are what they consider reasonable - I don't try to give all the price variations, but just "I would currently reproduce the piece as shown for $500"
    2. That your work is good quality, of a style they would like (links to other work)
    3. That they would enjoy working with you - you are not the crook on the street corner selling watches from inside his coat. (about us, from the home page, including a friendly picture that doesn't look like an axe murderer). Personally I am turned off by pictures of dogs or kids on the page "about us." This is where I am trying to learn who I am dealing with.
  3. Show them how to proceed - I do it through links back to my home page, and specialized pages on "what next" - how to proceed through ballpark estimates, design fees, detailed design, deposit, construction, delivery, and so forth. I provide, but play down, address and phone numbers since I prefer to work by email, but I recognize that may lose some customers who prefer working in person or by phone.

As you plan the contents of your web site, keep in mind that it will probably grow. Therefore you will want to have a structure. On my woodworking site, https://plesums.com/wood I list bedroom furniture, living room furniture, and other. I am not sure that is the best structure, but it works. I plan to add multiple items for quilters and scrapbookers, so rather than continuing to expand "other" that may become a new "hobby" section. And I have thought of isolating some items in a "home office" section. It is far easier to work with a site that isn't just dumped in one giant pile (no structure), but it is a lot of work to change the structure of the site... especially if there are a lot of links (which are good) to help people move around the site.

Too many beginners put a series of pictures (good) on their web site, using tools that automatically scroll through the pictures (terrible). Why is it terrible? If it is something of interest, several seconds is not long enough - it disappears before I can think about it; if it is not of interest the several seconds per picture is way too long. But more important, you need a separate web page for each product that the search engines can find and link to... they won't link to an isolated picture scrolling by!

To build your web site, I suggest that you start with a 3 ring notebook. Plan what will be on each page... each paragraph of text, each picture or chart. What pages you might want to link to from various parts of this page. Don't pick your construction tools yet, just get the text and pictures together. Only after you have 20-30 or more pages, with links and pictures, defined in your notebook, are you ready to start building a site.

Getting found

You need to plan the ways that the search engines engines will find the page. What terms are your customers going to enter into their search engine, that can be matched to your page... in fact, the better match, the higher your page will be in the list provided by the search engine.

First you must select key words (or phrases) for each page. In the example above, "Coffee Table," "Cherry," "Austin Texas," "Central Texas." But how about "Cocktail Table?" Or after some research, it appears that "Coffee Tables" (plural) match more searches than "Coffee Table" (singular) - but when it comes to Saddle Stands, singular is much more effective than plural.

Google offers an "Ad Words" product to place your listing or ads in yellow at the head of the search results list, based on key words you choose (your ad words). They have some tools that may help you find key words to use... search for "Keyword Tool." Although these are oriented to helping you choose the best keywords for your Google Ad Words, you can take their suggestions without being an Ad Words Customer. With Google Ad Words, you bid for how much you are willing to pay to be near the top of the list when people search for specific words - from a few cents to a few dollars. No charge for just being there, but you pay as soon as the user clicks and is directed to your web site. I know one woodworking site that found this didn't pay at all, but have seen stories of other sites have found this tremendously helpful. I have focused on getting my pages near the head of the list without paying, and get all the traffic I want, but someday I may try the Ad Words "product" as an experiment. Note that Ad Words places your ads on the pages produced by search engines.

"Ad Words" should not be confused with "Ad Sense." I leave a space on my page for Google to insert ads (by putting a few lines of code in the web page). Google senses what information is on each of my web pages and selects ads to appear on that page, based on my content and the customer's interests (recent searches). If someone clicks on one of the ads on my page, I get a portion of the amount the advertiser paid for your click. Some people make a living from "Ad Sense" on their site; I average less than $1 per day. If you are selling a product on a web page, don't use Google Ad Sense on that page... the relevant ads will be your competitors. If you are giving free advice, like this web site, there is no risk to the ads.

Once you have chosen your set of keywords for each web page, there are several places to take advantage of them.

  1. In the title to the web page, at the top of the browser. Get rid of "Welcome" or "Page 1." Put a title relevant to this page, with keywords, there. "Charlie's Woodworking" is good but "Coffee Tables" is better. This brief title is also used when people with disabilities access your site through a "reader."
  2. In the "invisible" header to the page is a tag for specifically listing keywords. Take advantage of it to list all the relevant keywords, but be careful - the search engines check to be sure they match the page.
  3. Another part of the invisible header is a one paragraph "description" of the page, that is often used in the search engine results list, and whenever somebody posts a link to you, such as in Facebook... it is your opportunity for a brief compelling paragraph to catch the customer
  4. The URL itself... an address .../livingroom/coffeetable.html is more user friendly than .../AAB1275uvw.htm or .../index.php?content=gallery&product=54&picture=11
  5. The text of the page itself. You can have a note at the bottom about the geographic area you serve, so it doesn't distract from the description of the product, but everything you want to say, and that you want the search engines to find, needs to be somewhere on the page.

An early web trick was to make a title or keyword list describe something popular... that would get a lot of search engine hits (such as "free tax advice") ... and then link to something else - a porn site or ad for Viagra (this is called "Cloaking"). Repeating key words, perhaps in white print on white background, so the page seems to have more references to the key words, is called "Stuffing." Google and the other search engines have gotten very smart, matching the search terms you suggested with the actual content of the web page, and not listing pages that don't match. They even recognize words that are in fonts too small to see, or white print on white background, and don't consider them part of the real web page. Be honest, and be sure all the parts fit together.

A page that is held in high regard by the experts gets a higher place in the search engine results. How do you identify a page recognized by the experts? One way is that other sites link to it. Wonderful - you link to me and I will link to you - a link exchange. But when we participate in a link exchange, we aren't endorsing the page with expertise. Paying somebody to link to your page isn't really an endorsement. So Google not only ignores the exchange in ranking the page, but some even believe it reduces your page ranking. If someone links to you, great, but a link exchange doesn't help, and may hurt.

What now

Once you have your text, your pictures, your structure, and your keywords, you are finally ready to begin. There are lots of web hosting providers who provide low cost web sites, complete with domain names and generic site building tools. After trying several others, I used IX Web Hosting for years, but in late 2014 we switched to Vivio Technologies for our web hosting and mail services. We have been very pleased with their efficient, low cost shared hosting services - for less than $10 per month they host both of my web sites with virtually unlimited storage, bandwidth, and email accounts. They offer a huge variety of tools to use on your site. You don't need to spend hundreds of dollars for a basic site.

If you already have a web site that doesn't get traffic, you need to follow these suggestions, but you also need to be sure the site, as seen by your customer, is fast and friendly. Some of the "free" web sites we start with are very slow - it only takes a few seconds for me to go elsewhere if your site hasn't responded. Some tools (or web design services) make very pretty sites that are slow - large pages or complex programs. Slow is bad. Some web sites play music. I may be looking at your site in the office or late at night, and any sound could drive me away. Some start with pretty animated picture... okay, you had your three seconds and you haven't answered my search ... goodbye. Are you getting customers but driving them away?

I can make a lot of arguments about why you want a simple web site structure, built with simple tools. I believe most people can build their own web pages using simple "HTML" commands, and the simple structure, and would have a more user friendly (and search engine friendly) site than the fancy alternatives. That may not be the best technology, but it is simple, and it works very very well. If you want to go on, look at my page on web technology, or my other page on tricks to use when setting up your web site. I have even started an introduction to HTML to build your own web pages using this elementary technology - although those pages are new and not yet well tested.