Build Your Site`s Popularity Organically

Building a great website optimized to score high in the SERPs is only half the job. If you want to get visitors, you need to promote your site. There’s more to this than advertising; you need to find ways to get your visitors involved. Do a good enough job, and they’ll naturally link to your site.

You’ve built an excellent website, doing everything you need to do to make sure it scores high on the search engine results pages (SERPs). More importantly, you’ve avoided search engine spam and other practices that are likely to get you banned. You have great content, which you refresh regularly. Your site is easy to navigate, and everything works. Are you finished yet?

Well, I hate to be the one to tell you, but you’ve only completed half the battle. The other half is promoting your website, and here you can’t depend exclusively on the search engines. They’re getting better at spotting certain manipulations, and regularly update their algorithms accordingly. Don’t even think of committing link spam; if you want to build your site’s traffic for the long haul, you need to make sure that your website is naturally one that web surfers will want to visit. That will get an organic link building process off to a good start – and those are the kinds of links that search engines love.

If you are building your website’s links organically, you’ll find that more visitors will come to your site from sources other than search engines. Yes, this seems like a counterintuitive idea when we’re concerned with search engine optimization, but it works. By some estimates, the best websites in each industry receive half or less of their total visitors from search engines. Instead, web surfers find their way to these sites via bookmarks, links to the site from articles or blogs, and directly typing in the URL at the address bar.

If you have a site that’s good enough to get that kind of traffic, visitors will come to you no matter where you are in the SERPs. The trick is to take advantage of the right ways to promote your website. In this article and the next, I’ll discuss some of the techniques you can use to help generate buzz and get web surfers interested in what your site has to offer them.

Everyone would like to build an online community, but it’s easier said than done. A good first step is to think of your website not as a corporate brochure, but as an opportunity for you to communicate with customers. Please keep in mind the word “communicate” – not feed them sales talk. Most web surfers are hypersensitive to that these days.

So how do you build a community? Start by knowing why your site exists in the first place. Use a slogan if you must. At Developer Shed, for example, our slogan is “Tools for Geeks,” and we take pride in providing the information users need to get their jobs done. What you need to keep in mind is this: what benefit do users get from participating in your community? What are you offering them that they won’t find anywhere else?

Once you do know what your goal is, stick with it. This doesn’t mean you can’t change or shift your focus; in fact, you’ll probably have to, to meet the needs of the community. But you still need to have a plan to refer to, and to guide your actions. If you don’t, your users might start pursuing their own agendas – and those might not fit in well with yours.

It’s fairly easy, at first glance, to just set up a blog, forum, wiki, or other system that can receive input from multiple users; that’s a matter of getting the right software. But the point is the content and the people who provide it – think of it as the difference between having an empty house and a home. The difference is the people. You can attract interested web surfers through search engines, word of mouth, and submitting links to other sites. If you’ve ever participated in other online communities, your experience will serve you in good stead here. You’ll know that the trick is getting the good ones to stay. Fortunately, if your community is healthy, that issue will take care of itself.

User behavior is frequently surprising. That doesn’t necessarily make it “wrong” or unhealthy. For example, you may find that the topics you thought would receive a lot of interest and discussion from visitors just sort of sit there. Conversely, they may take an enthusiastic interest in discussing ideas you never thought were important or didn’t even know existed. Think of it as an educational experience, and enjoy the ride!

In a good community, the members will develop a sense of ownership. This can be helpful for you, as they will be willing to take on community responsibilities; some community members will be willing to act as moderators, for example. Moderators are fairly important to online communities once they reach a certain size. They help things run more smoothly, politely enforce rules, and sometimes even act as peacemakers between other community members having serious disagreements with each other.

The downside is that many users will like things the way they are – which means that you will get a lot of squawking and bad feelings (and possibly even lose users) when you want to institute changes. You can minimize the damage by being honest and open about your plans as early as possible. You might even hear from someone in the community who has a better idea for how to achieve what you’re trying to do!

Speaking of squawking and bad feelings, you will probably notice some members of the community that seem to hang around just so that they can complain about what you are doing wrong. Usually these will be a minority, and they sometimes do make good suggestions and honest criticisms. Pay attention to the ones that make sense; for the rest, you will probably need to develop a thick skin. 

One of the best things you can do for you community is create very clear, simple rules. Post them in a prominent area of the community, where everyone can read them. You should start with a list of behaviors that are unacceptable, such as harassing or attacking other users, posting copyrighted materials, etc. Engaging in these behaviors should have clearly posted consequences, which can range all the way up to expulsion from the community. Refer to the rules when there is a dispute. Some people like to push rules as if it is a game; apply them calmly and consistently, and users will be less likely to try to get away with deliberately breaking them.

Once a community is developed, its members will link to it from their own blogs or websites as a place where they hang out. Writers who cover your field may check it out for interesting information. It goes without saying that you want these kinds of organic links. If you have not participated much in online communities and want more information about them, Google comes through surprisingly well when you put in the phrase “how to build an online community” (I tried it without the quotes). It may seem like you need to go through a lot of work for what sounds like a small return, but truly, the rewards are tremendous.

Paul Graham, programmer, author of Hackers and Painters, and a keen observer, noted once that “PR is the news equivalent of search engine optimization; instead of buying ads, which readers ignore, you get yourself inserted directly into stories.” To elaborate on this point, advertising and PR are not the same thing. You pay for placing ads with specific outlets. With PR, you or your PR firm write a press release and usually submit it to a site like PRNewsWire or PRWeb. These sites feed the major news search engines (Yahoo! and Google News). If your press release is well written and link worthy, it may be picked up by the mainstream press practically word for word.

The reason for this is that most reporters and journalists are overworked. Press releases provide them with a “shortcut” to doing their job. If you have information and content on your site that is truly compelling and interesting, reporters will be happy to cover it. Think of a press release as a way to make it easy for them.

Keep your eyes open for journalists and reporters who cover topics in your field. Think local, independent, and friendly; you don’t want to start with the New York Times, you’ll probably just frustrate yourself. Send them emails; be careful not to make a nuisance of yourself, however. You want to give the reporter the impression that it’s his or her idea that you’re newsworthy. Don’t lie – PR firms don’t lie, they tell somewhat selective truths that favor their clients. There’s a big difference.

Don’t be surprised if your press release is used without being altered at all, especially if it is written to sound like an article. Also don’t be surprised if it is altered. When I worked as an industry analyst, we received a steady stream of press releases about technology companies. We found that press releases, even ones that were several pages long, could be boiled down to about a paragraph of meat. In general, a reporter will use your press release in the way that best suits the needs of the publication. But you can usually count on it generating buzz, visitors, and links.

That’s it for now. In the next article, I’ll discuss how to build links based on what your competitors are doing, and how to build interest in your site through the force of your own personality and reputation. I also plan to touch on how to handle highly competitive words and phrases.

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